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135 Mary Blackwell Baker Her Quiet Campaign for Labor Justice Constance Ashton Myers • • • The events that young Mary Ursula Blackwell (1921–95) lived through with her family and in her community in October and November 1933 during the first big textile strike of the New Deal impressed her deeply and propelled her choices in life and work. At the age of twelve, she saw her parents locked out of the Warrenville cotton mill where her father, Franklyn Blackwell, and her mother, Mary Ellen Maddox Blackwell, had worked as mill hands as long as she could remember. Both of her parents, the children of Irish émigrés, had left farming to work for cash in nearby textile plants. Her father, a roping hauler, was charged with bringing the thread into the spinning room for “the spools that go up and down and make the material.” Her mother, a spinner, kept the spools full for the process. The oldest of five children, Mary understood more about the family’s situation than her siblings, and she surely suffered some of the pangs about an uncertain future that her parents felt. Although the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, it was nevertheless a time of promise because the recently sworn-in president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his cabinet had made swift executive decisions and had sent proposed draft legislation to Congress that became known as the New Deal. The new administration purportedly aimed to redress labor’s smoldering grievances and at the same time to breathe renewed confidence in industry at the management level. Mary listened to the news on the radio, and this registered with her.1 Years later in an interview, she professed her lifelong fascination with news reports, reflecting that a regimen of daily listening as a child had honed her political sensibility. Her parents’ nightly political discussions over the evening supper table ignited a fascination with politics. “Every time they read the morning newspaper, that was a source for talking about politics in the evening when Mary Blackwell Baker Courtesy of Sarah Johnson. Mary Blackwell Baker 137 [her mother] came in from the mill. You see, she didn’t get to read the local paper until night. Then lots of times I used to sit in a little rocking chair and listen to them talk about the different candidates and what they thought, and which one they thought would be the best, and what they thought they’d accomplish , and so forth.” Such repeated experiences fed an insatiable interest. The events of 1933—what was happening to kinfolk and neighbors and how the government reacted—provided her with indelible memories.2 Very likely at this point her awareness of injustices endured by farm and industrial families grew, gradually cementing a determination to do something and sparking a lifelong loyalty to politics and the labor movement. Notions about injustice and political redress, alongside a powerful work ethic and a belief in learning, fueled her zeal for activism. When asked whether or not anything in her early schooling might have contributed to her later union diligence, she remembered a mill lockout—it may also have been the one in 1933—that left workers struggling to feed their families. The union set up warehouses and brought vegetables and foodstuffs in from Columbia. Baker recalled watching people pick up their food. “I remember people marching up the road in support of the union,” she said, “and it was dangerous. People were hungry . Many got knocked in the head and got beat up. I can remember seeing them walking along the road, carrying banners saying ‘Join the union! Join the union!’ I will never forget that. I was just a small child, maybe eight or nine years old, but I can remember it to this day, them walking and singing.” The strength of the union during the six-week lockout made a deep impression. “I saw all of this. It inspired me. I thought then anything worth going hungry for, worth marching for, worth getting locked out of a mill [for] is worth having. And when you find a band of people that would stick together like that to improve conditions, you have to admire them.”3 Mary Baker would join a union for the first time in 1949 and move quickly from elected positions within the union to a lifelong career of paid employment with the union. Born in Aiken County’s Horse Creek Valley situated in the shadow of the...


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