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Saturday, 25 September 2010

Report on Conditions at North Carolina Mills (Martha Gellhorn to Harry Hopkins, 1934)


Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Dirt road, pines, North Carolina: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939

Washington, November 11, 1934

My dear Mr. Hopkins:

  • I came in today from Gastonia, and was as flat and grim as is to be expected. Miss Hickok very generously listened to what was on my mind; and suggested that I make out a supplementary report which would deal in greater detail with more matters than I included in my first report. I don't want to repeat: but my sources are the same as those cited for the report on South Carolina. This letter (or whatever) will deal with North Carolina as well.

  • I got a notice from your office asking about "protest groups." All during this trip I have been thinking to myself about that curious phrase "red menace", and wondering where said menace hid itself. Every house I visited--mill worker or unemployed--had a picture of the President. These ranged from newspaper clippings (in destitute homes) to large colored prints, framed in gilt cardboard. The portrait holds the place of honour over the mantel; I can only compare this to the Italian peasant's Madonna. And the feeling of these people for the president is one of the most remarkable emotional phenomena I have ever met. He is at once God and their intimate friend; he knows them all by name, knows their little town and mill, their little lives and problems. And, though everything else fails, he is there, and will not let them down.

  • I have been seeing people who, according to almost any standard, have practically nothing in life and practically nothing to look forward to or hope for. But there is hope; confidence, something intangible and real: "the president isn't going to forget us."

  • Let me cite cases: I went to see a woman with five children who was living on relief ($3.40 a week.) Her picture of the President was as a small one, and she told me her oldest daughter had been married some months ago and had cried for the big, coloured picture as a wedding present. The children have no shoes and that woman is terrified of the coming cold as if it were a definite physical entity. There is practically no furniture left in the home, and you can imagine what and how they eat. But she said, suddenly brightening, "I'd give my heart to see the President. I know he means to do everything he can for us; but they make it hard for him; they won't let him." I note this case as something special; because here the faith was coupled with a feeling (entirely sympathetic) that the President was not entirely omnipotent.

  • I have been seeing mill workers; and in every mill when possible, the local Union president. There has been widespread discrimination in the south; and many mills haven't re-opened since the strike. Those open often run on such curtailment that workers are getting from 2 to 3 days work a week. The price of food has risen (especially the kind of food they eat: fat-back bacon, flour, meal, sorghum) as high as 100%. It is getting cold; and they have no clothes. The Union presidents are almost all out of work, since the strike. In many mill villages, evictions have been served; more threatened. These men are in a terrible fix. (Lord, how barren the language seems: these men are faced by hunger and cold, by the prospect of becoming dependent beggars--in their own eyes: by the threat of homelessness, and their families dispersed. What more can a man face, I don't know.) You would expect to find them maddened with fear; with hostility. I expected and waited for "lawless" talk; threats; or at least, blank despair. And I didn't find it. I found a kind of contained and quiet misery; fear for their families and fear that their children wouldn't be able to go to school. ("All we want is work and the chance to care for our families like a man should.") But what is keeping them sane, keeping them going on and hoping, is their belief in the President.

  • What the rights and wrongs of this are, I don't know. But the fact remains that they believe the President promised them they would get their jobs back, after the strike, regardless of whether they were union or non-union men. This is their credo. Therefore, since the President promised it, it will happen; it must. They simply wait for the Labor Councilations Board, confidently; knowing that this Board is the President's, and that it will obviously do the just thing. They know that the President will see that they have work and proper wages; and that the stretch-out will be abandoned. They don't waver in this faith; they don't question it. They merely hope the President will send "his men" (The Labor Councilators) quickly; because it is hard to wait.

  • These are the things they say to me; "We trust in the Supreme Being and Franklin Roosevelt."--"You heard him talk over the radio, ain't you? He's the only president who ever said anything about the forgotten man. We know he's going to stand by us."--"He's a man of his word and he promised us; we aren't worrying as long as we got him"--"The president won't let these awful conditions go on."--"The president wanted the Code. The president knows why we struck."--"The president said no man was going to go hungry and cold; he'll get us our jobs."--

  • They asked me about the President; have I ever seen him. The women say: "He's got such good eyes; he must be a kind man." Like children; a feeling that is half love and half reverent faith.

  • I am going on and on about this because I think it has vast importance. These people will be slow to give up hope; terribly slow to doubt the president. But if they don't get their jobs; then what? If the winter comes on and they find themselves on our below-subsistence relief; then what? I think they might strike again; hopelessly and apathetically. In very few places, there might be some violence speedily crushed. But if they lose this hope, there isn't much left for them as a group. And I feel [that if] this class (whatever marvelous stock they are, too) loses its courage or morale or whatever you want to call it, there will be an even worse social problem than there now is. And I think that with time, adding disillusionment and suffering, they might actually go against their own grain and turn into desperate people. As it is, between them and fear, stands the President. But only the President.

  • To go on with the mills. The stretch-out is the constant cry of the workers. This is a very complex problem; needless to say every mill owner angrily denies that there is a stretch-out and some of them ask you what the word means. One owner (who seemed a very good guy in many ways) literally said to me "I just don't know what you're talking about; never heard of that word; it doesn't mean anything to me." But I saw, by intention, some of his workers; a couple of them had quit his mill after the strike. (They were union people; and also felt that as union people they would be highly unwelcome there, when the mills re-opened). They told me that during the summer 2 to 3 women a day fainted in the mill; and a man of 33 died, between his looms, of heart failure. Other cases: "When you get out, you're just trembling all over, and you can't hardly get rested for the next day.". . ."We don't know how long we can keep it up; it's killing the women and the men are all afraid they will lose their jobs because they can't do the work." I went to see one man in his home, and said, "How are you?" "Tired," he said, "tired and weary--like all the others; like all of us working here." That sounds like something out of Dickens; but it was pretty grim, seeing the man. Their faces are proof of this statement; faces and bodies. The people who seem most physically hit by this are the young girls; who are really in awful shape. I have watched them in some mills where the naked eye can tell that the work load is inhuman. They have no rest for 8 hours; in one mill they told me they couldn't get time to cross the room to the drinking fountain for water. They eat standing up, keeping their eyes on the machines. In another mill I found three women lying on the cement floor of the toilet, resting...

    Martha Gellhorn: excerpt from a report to Federal Emergency Relief Administration Director Harry Hopkins, from Gaston County, North Carolina, November 11, 1934 (Hopkins Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library). Gellhorn was one of a group of reporters assigned by Hopkins in late 1933 to investigate social and economic conditions around America in the grip of the Depression. She had traveled on fact-finding missions to the impoverished textile mill areas of the Carolinas, where in the past oppressive working conditions had given rise to strikes. ("I don't want the social-worker angle," Hopkins had advised another of the reporters, Lorena Hickok. "I just want your own reactions, as an ordinary citizen.")

    Image, Source: intermediary roll film

    Siler City, North Carolina: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939

    Image, Source: intermediary roll film

    Grocery store window, Mebane, North Carolina: photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1939

    Photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress


    Anonymous said...

    This is remarkably intense; the prose and the photographs that accompany it make me feel as if I'm there with Ms. Gellhorn. I find all of the living Roosevelt hagiography very sad, however, and reminiscent of remarks I've sometimes seen reported about the current president. They also remind me of things my mother told me about her childhood feelings for Pres. Roosevelt, which were no doubt reflections of her own mother's views. Obviously, investing that sort of belief in individual politicians isn't a good or practical idea. Life doesn't work that way. It seems either they're accomplished grafters or aspiring grafters and that graft is the main object of their endeavors, with feeding a self-aggrandizement disorder running a close second. As I recall you remarking recently on another subject, everything else is just noise. Oh -- it was fascinating re-reading Martha Gellhorn's biography. I'm not sure I would have liked her, but she's a fascinating person. I would love to have a print of the Lange Dirt Road Pines photograph hanging on my wall.

    TC said...


    Well, there is a curious near-hysteria of allegiance in this report which borders on the religious, and from this distance the voodoo aspects are evident... as is the casual paternalism.

    But plainly the reporter was shocked by what she saw.

    The report goes on at length and in some detail about the epidemiological consequences of conditions in the cotton mill towns, malnutrition, pellagra and syphilis being common.

    Elmo St. Rose said...

    The textile mills are mostly
    closed...John Edwards talked about
    his life growing up in a milltown
    in North Carolina...the jobs now
    in China.

    Air conditioning:"I think air-conditioning changed the South" said Senator Lott...air conditioning being invented by
    Dr.Carrier, a physician, in
    Appalachiacola,Florida who wanted
    to keep his suffering patients

    Pellagra:Goldberg found this was
    a result of B vitamin deficiency
    related to the corn bread and
    molasses diet of the poor in the
    South while working for the US
    Public Health Service in the early
    1900s,lessened the load of the
    psychiatric hospitals.

    There is, as a result of the
    New Deal, and almost all the subsequent Presidents, a vast social safety net, so vast that it
    actually threatens the prosperity
    that made it possible. People still
    fall through the cracks regularly but that's because they are people.

    If America fails today,given the
    wealth that has been created,it will be because of our education
    system...which is failing for
    many example on this
    blog, is that among other things,
    history is not taught(how many of
    the poets know history,and these
    are our literate) and an obvious
    example is that TC among the other
    things he does has a wonderfully
    Socratic mind, and relies on self-
    employment rather than being sought
    after as a teacher.

    History is a pastime but it also
    looks into the future which I guess
    is purpose of TC revisiting the
    New Deal which seems to outliving
    the New Age

    TC said...

    Elmo, Glad you found your way to this one, as it was with you in mind that I put it up.

    Some further bits from the Gellhorn report, on the subject of public health:


    What has been constantly before me is the health problem. To write about it is difficult only in that one doesn't know where to begin......dietary diseases abound. I know that in this area there has always been pellagra; but that doesn't make matters better. In any case it is increasing; and I have seen it ranging from scaly elbows in children to insanity in a grown man. Here is what doctors say: "It's no use telling mothers what to feed their children; they haven't the food to give"..."Conditions are really horrible here; it seems as if the people were degenerating before your eyes: the children are worse mentally and physically than their parents.". . . "I've just come from seeing some patients who have been living on corn bread and corn hominy, without seasoning, for two weeks. I wonder how long it takes for pellagra to set in; just a question of days now." . . . "All the mill workers I see are definite cases of undernourishment; that's the best breeding ground I know for disease." . . . "There's not much use prescribing medicine; they haven't the money to buy it." . . . "You can't do anything with these people until they're educated to take care of themselves; they don't know what to eat; they haven't the beginning of an idea how to protect themselves against sickness.". . .


    The medical set-up, from every point of view, in this area is tragic. In Gaston County there is not one county clinic or hospital; and only one health officer (appointed or elected?) This gentleman has held his job for more than a dozen years; and must have had droll medical training sometime during the last century. He believes oddly that three shots of neo-salvarsan will cure syphilis; and thinks that injecting this into the arm muscle is as good as anything. Result: he cripples and paralyzes his patients who won't go back...Another doctor in this area owns a drug store. He was selling bottled tonic (home-made I think) to his mill worker patients as a cure for syphilis. This was discovered by a 21 year old case worker; who wondered why her clients' money was disappearing so fast. When asked why he did this he said that syphilis was partly a "run-down" condition, and that "you ought to build the patients up." Every doctor says that syphilis is spreading unchecked and uncured. One doctor even said that it had assumed the proportions of an epidemic and wouldn't be stopped unless the government stepped in; and treated it like small-pox.


    I have seen three V.D. clinics only. One of them was over a store--three rooms; run by the county doctor, a nurse, and a janitor who acted as assistant. I am told by these clinic doctors that most of the patients come in when the disease is in the second or third (and incurable) stage. That of course it is being spread regardless; and often they treat the whole family. That congenital syphilis is a terrible problem and practically untreated; nature kills off these children pretty well...

    TC said...

    And a further excerpt:


    Which brings us to birth control. Every social worker I saw, and every doctor, and the majority of mill owners, talked about birth control as the basic need of this class. I have seen three generations of unemployed (14 in all) living in one room; and both mother and daughter were pregnant. Our relief people have a child a year; large families are the despair of the social worker and the doctor. The doctors say that the more children in a family the lower the health rating. These people regard children as something the Lord has seen fit to send them, and you can't question the Lord even if you don't agree with him. There is absolutely no hope for these children; I feel that our relief rolls will double themselves given time. The children are growing up in terrible surroundings; dirt, disease, overcrowding, undernourishment. Often their parents were farm people, who at least had air and enough food. This cannot be said for the children. I know we could do birth control in this area; it would be a slow and trying job beginning with education. (You have to fight superstition, stupidity and lack of hygiene.) But birth control would be worked into prenatal clinics; and the grape vine telegraph is the best propaganda I know. I think if it isn't done that we may as well fold up; these people cannot be bettered under present circumstances. Their health is going to pieces; the present generation of unemployed will be useless human material in no time; their housing is frightful (talk about European slums); they are ignorant and often below-par intelligence. What can we do: feed them--feed them pinto beans and corn bread and sorghum and watch the pellagra spread. And in twenty years, what will there be; how can a decent civilization be based on a decayed substrata, which is incapable physically and mentally to cope with life?

    Elmo St. Rose said...

    luck of the draw

    penicillin was accidentally
    found as mold on a culture
    plate by Flemming but syphillis
    is making a come back

    the Rockefellers were among
    those who financed Planned
    Parenthood, ostensibly at that
    time, to decrease the birth rate
    of the underclass

    reasonable birth control is
    reasonable, but what would the
    church say about it?

    we've come a long way from
    the Gellhorn report but we
    still sees it all

    Elmo St. Rose said...

    error:It was Dr.Goldberger who
    took on Pellagra not Goldberg

    sorry folks