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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Cole, May 10, 1981. Interview H-0311. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A textile mill strike turns violent

Cole remembers, with few details, a strike at a textile mill. The strike, motivated by low wages, turned violent and one of its organizers was kidnapped and released across state lines. Cole was then, or later became, that man's bodyguard.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Cole, May 10, 1981. Interview H-0311. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
What do you remember about how this strike got started?
ROBERT COLE:
Well, they just organized a union, lady.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did you first hear about this union being organized?
ROBERT COLE:
Well, I had heard of it a few days before, and they's talking and they're all looking at it. I knew what was going on but I didn't have nothing to say either way. The reeling department was the department that done the striking to start with, and I had worked in the reeling department. I got transferred over to this other job, you see. So I had two brothers and a sister working in there at that time. I pretty well knowed what was going on.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And it was the reeling department that first went out on strike?
ROBERT COLE:
They went over in the final inspection and got a lot of them out. They had it pretty rough that day.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What happened?
ROBERT COLE:
A pretty rough time that day. There was a little bit of fighting done. I had a table and a chair that I sat in, and I was advised to stay there. To see what went on, you see, that was through the company. And I did; I sat right there in that chair, watched what was going on. I seen a whole lot of it, too.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What all happened that day?
ROBERT COLE:
They worked one another a little bit with pipes, lead pipes, you see. Little bit of fighting. And the () were having it pretty tough. They were in there, the guards was. I didn't have anything to do with it any way that first day. I just stayed on my job.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did the people in the reeling department go out on strike?
ROBERT COLE:
They wasn't making no money. Eleven dollars a week and I'd say the biggest part of 'em paid car fare, taxi fare. Up on Stoney Creek where I live it was costing them two-and-a-half or three dollars a week to get back and forth to work.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was there actually a local union already set up?
ROBERT COLE:
They had a union set up.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Who organized the union?
ROBERT COLE:
I don't remember their names.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were they people who worked here in the plant?
ROBERT COLE:
They didn't work in the plant. Course, I did a lot of talking, you know. Passed back and forth through the plant. The started of it didn't work in the plant at all.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Have you heard of a man named John Penix?
ROBERT COLE:
Yes, I knowed him.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Some of the articles I've read say he was one of the organizers?
ROBERT COLE:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is he still alive?
ROBERT COLE:
No, he's dead.
JACQUELYN HALL:
He was a carpenter here in town, or something, wasn't he?
ROBERT COLE:
Well, I never seen him work a lick in my life. I don't know what he done. And then they got a big fleshy fellow come in from North Carolina.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Alfred Hoffman?
ROBERT COLE:
That's right. So he took over. I was with him some backwards and forwards, and they kidnapped him at the Lynnwood Hotel and took him to North Carolina and told him not to come back. And I went after him, me and some more people, and we got him and brought him back to Elizabethton.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you know he'd been kidnapped or where he was?
ROBERT COLE:
Well, he called us and let us know they rook him to the North Carolina line, and let him out and told him not to come back. I don't know what they said to him, I wasn't there and I couldn't say. But he come back and we met him at the North Carolina line. We brought him on in and I stayed with him pretty regular.
JACQUELYN HALL:
To protect him?
ROBERT COLE:
Yes, I was what they called a bodyguard.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you get that job?
ROBERT COLE:
how did I get it?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Uh-huh. why were you doing that?
ROBERT COLE:
To protect him.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was he like?
ROBERT COLE:
He was a great big fleshy fellow, weighed about 300 pounds or more.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Really?
ROBERT COLE:
Yeah, he was a big man. He didn't go back to his hotel, he went to another place over there. I don't know the man's name now. Anyhow, he run a restaurant and had good rooms upstairs. He got him a room and I got one alongside of it. They paid for the room.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did people like him?
ROBERT COLE:
Oh, yes. They liked him fine. Then he left from here and went to Marion, North Carolina, and had a strike up there at Marion. And I was in on that.