George Stoney, the great documentary filmmaker, has died at age 96. Though he had made films since the early 1950s, Stoney made one in 1995 that turned my world upside down.
The Uprising of ’34, made with his former student, Judith Helfand, was about the Textile Strike of 1934. In it was a section about how, on September 6, 1934, seven workers were shot and killed and 30 others wounded at the Chiquola Mill in my home town of Honea Path, South Carolina.
It was an act that has shaped the town’s history and attitudes in ways that few could have imagined. I had a special interest in the film because my late grandfather, Dan Beacham, Honea Path’s mayor and superintendent of the mill in 1934, organized the gunmen who fired their weapons at the workers. That day became known as “Bloody Thursday.”
My grandfather died in 1936, many years before I was born. When I was growing up in Honea Path during the 1960s, the subject of the mill violence was taboo. There were hints of what happened, of course, but the topic was never discussed in the open. I learned the truth about Honea Path’s history in 1994 from a rough-cut of Stoney’s film.
Since that film essentially ended Honea Path’s six-decade long secret, I’ve learned about the history of the town and its people through many conversations and stories. I wrote about it in my book, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder.
As a writer who makes his living telling stories, I was shocked to find one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard connected to my own family and hometown. Even more shocking, I found, was how an event of such magnitude and importance to the lives of generations of Honea Path families could have been hidden and buried for so long. Of course the reason that I and so few of my fellow baby boomers didn’t know the story of Chiquola Mill was because it was purposely denied us.
There was a campaign of fear and intimidation after the shootings that effectively erased public discussion of what had happened. Fearful workers who wanted to keep their jobs put a self-imposed lid on their own past. Somehow, as the years went by, the violence at Chiquola evolved into a source of shame.
George Stoney, a Southerner himself, understood all this. He explained more to me about where I came from than I ever learned while living there. After the film’s release, he came to Honea Path and we did a radio talk show together. He organized a retreat at the Highlander Center in Tennessee where we discussed what happened in Honea Path for several days.
Later, we spoke, not only in his classes at New York University, but at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Natural History in New York City. We always winged it and the endless conversations were never boring.
As I learned from all this, a documentary filmmaker’s job is never done. George invited me to one of his film classes last year at NYU, still teaching well into his 90s.
George addressed the many myths that built up over the years about the workers who died in Honea Path more than 75 years ago. They were called an isolated group of troublemakers and rabble-rousers. Some, mainly the mill’s former management, claimed they deserved what happened to them.
He saw it another way. He thought these mill workers risked everything—their jobs, their freedom and ultimately their lives—for a cause they believed in. They made a decision to exert some control over their changing place in an increasingly industrialized world. Their method was to attempt to organize their fellow workers into a labor union.
The amazing chain of events that caused friends and neighbors in Honea Path to turn on one another with weapons has to be viewed in the context of the time. In 1934 the cork finally blew and labor protests erupted all over the United States. There were 1,856 work stoppages involving 1,470,000 workers.
Honea Path represented a microcosm in a whirlwind of worker unrest. The shooting of the Honea Path mill workers was a pivotal moment in the General Textile Strike that was sweeping the South. Though the efforts of the workers ended in defeat and much suffering followed, the deaths of the seven Honea Path men was not in vain.
The disillusionment of the workers and the outrageous conduct by the mill owners made a strong impression on the Roosevelt Administration. This helped spur passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Out of these laws came reforms that vastly improved the lives of all American workers. One example was child labor. Before 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act outlawed employment of children under sixteen, the concept of “helping” was used in the mills.
Very young children were taught factory skills by their parents and soon “helped” by working in the mill to increase the family's piecemeal earnings. “Helping” became a form of apprenticeship and a major part of the mill’s labor system. Because this practice is now illegal, children have a better chance at a quality life by getting to stay in school rather than be exploited as cheap labor.
Other major reforms that came out of the labor unrest was the establishment of the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week. These are reforms—a direct result of what happened in Honea Path—have permeated modern life in the United States and have extended far beyond the textile industry. That’s why these workers were heroes and why their history should be honored.
The corrosive division that poisoned Honea Path after the shootings and the sense of shame that followed the shooting was concocted by those responsible for the violence. Fortunately that has mostly ended now, if for no other reason than fewer and fewer remain with us who can give a first person account of what happened.
Now, we have lost George Stoney, too. The Honea Path story is just one of many that George told. What a life! What a wonderful ability to change people's lives through storytelling. That’s what George Stoney did so well.