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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, November 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Brush with unionization and relief at leaving the mill

Snipes discusses his one interaction with unionization, sometime during the 1930s. Snipes describes how he attended one meeting and how his employer later threatened him, saying he could be fired if he engaged in further union activity. The mill Snipes worked at was never unionized, but Snipes expresses here that he wished the workers had been organized. Arguing that he always felt like the "scum of the earth" when working at the mill, Snipes describes his relief when he was finally able to leave the mill in 1946.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, November 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BRENT GLASS:
How about a union? Did they ever talk about organizing in some way?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
One of them there organizers come by and it was whispered around all over the mill that they was going to have a meeting to organize a union up at the schoolhouse.
BRENT GLASS:
When was this, about?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
The old schoolhouse up here. I was working in the mill, and I went. I didn't sign nothing. Next morning I hadn't much more than got in the mill before Mr. Edgar come over, the superintendent, come in. "John, I heard you went to that union meeting last night." I said, "Yes sir, I did." He says, "Do you know if I wanted to I can fire you for not walking fast down that path. I don't have to have no excuse to fire you. I can fire you for not walking fast." I said, "I realize that, Mr. Moore. I'm aware of that, very much aware of it." I said, "You can fire me just because you don't like me, or anything you want to." I said, "But I didn't sign no paper and I didn't join no union." It scared them all to death, and a man never did come back. [Laughter]
BRENT GLASS:
Mr. Moore scared them all?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes sir.
BRENT GLASS:
Well, was that true? Could he fire you for just about anything?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Fire you for anything he wanted to.
BRENT GLASS:
Well, did people think that maybe it would be good if they had the union?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
I think that the majority of people at that time would have loved to have a union, because they didn't have…. If you didn't trade at the right store—see, Mr. Moore's brother run that Robert Moore store over there—and if you went out of town and bought groceries, why if he didn't like it he could fire you. You'd soon know what to do, I'll tell you that. You better go there and get your groceries.
BRENT GLASS:
Hmm. So that was pretty strong control.
JOHN W. SNIPES:
And old Mr. Manley Durham, these boys…. Say they paid off every two weeks. Well, when they got up to making twenty dollars a week, twenty-five dollars a week, they'd go to old Mr. Manley on Saturdays and say, "I'm going to draw two full weeks next week, fifty dollars, but I want to sell you my time." "Well, I'll give you forty dollars for your fifty dollar due bill." And you'd give him a due bill and he'd pay it off. When two or three or a hundred or so checks come over here, Mr. Durham'd just take it out, take your check out and cash it.
BRENT GLASS:
They would send the paychecks over to Durham?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Send them over to the office, and Mr. Durham would be responsible for the spinning room, Mr. Will Abernathy the card room, and the different departments, you know. Well, all the spinning room checks went in the hands of J. M. Durham. And if I had pawned my fifty dollar check to him for forty dollars cash, he took my check. He didn't give it to me; he put it in his pocket. Well, Mr. London's labor laws or something, that went on for years. He made thousands of dollars that route.
BRENT GLASS:
This is Durham or London?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Mr. Manley Durham, Mr. Carrie's father; he died here recently, ninety-two years old. Well, he bought the time. Where they didn't pay off for two weeks, he'd buy it every week at a discount (let's put it that way). That went on for years. Henry Carter down yonder, he's sold his and pawned his one a thousand times [Laughter] to Mr. Durham, and some of them old hands.
BRENT GLASS:
Is he still around, Mr. Carter?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes, he still lives down there on the hill. He's the last one of the old ones, about, working in the mill.
BRENT GLASS:
When you were working in the mill did you ever feel like you were—you know, they always say the millhands, they called them "lintheads" and things like this—a second class citizen?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes sir, felt all the time just like the scum of the earth. I was too independent.
BRENT GLASS:
Did people ever make fun of you or tease you?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Well, appeared that if you went off to play ball, see…. "Bynum cotton mill hands," they'd refer to it that way. It was a low-grade work, and I weren't happy with it none of the time. But I couldn't help myself. 'Til when I got so I could get away from here, then I got away from there; I got out of the mill.