I saw Sue Cannon Hill for the first time on television. Her grief-stricken words in the documentary, The Uprising of ’34, upset me. Teary and emotionally fragile, she told in a gripping interview how the management at the local textile mill—led by my grandfather—had nearly destroyed her family.
But when she spoke his name, she put a knife through me. I’d never heard my family name spoken that way. “Beacham.” Contempt dripped from the word. To her, it was the name of a mass murderer, the man who killed her father, Claude Cannon, and destroyed her mother. It was a name she’d never forget...or forgive.
In late 1994, I was planning to return to South Carolina for the Christmas holidays. I wrote a letter to Sue Hill, telling her who I was. I apologized for what my grandfather had done. I told her I had been surprised to learn what happened to her father and mother, and wanted to know more. I asked what I could do to make things right. Would she allow me to visit? Could we talk about it?
A couple of weeks went by before I heard back from her. I later learned that she, like others I had written at the time, saw the name Beacham in the return address of my envelope and had been unable to open the letter.
Finally, after a few days, their curiosity won out. One of her friends told Sue that my letter to her had been harmless, and it might be okay after all to read what I had sent. A relieved, but hesitant, Sue Hill called and invited me to her home during the Christmas holiday.
As I approached the sprawling modern ranch house where Sue now lived with her husband, I couldn’t help but be surprised at how far she had come from the days of living in poverty with her mother on Chiquola’s mill hill.
Sue had married a prosperous businessman, I was told, and this home—one of the nicest in town—fronted fifty acres of land with two private fish ponds.
I was ushered into a huge, rectangular living room with a panoramic rear view of the extended rural landscape. Sue’s greeting was gracious, but I sensed that she was not comfortable. Neither was I. We were both walking on egg shells.
As we seated ourselves across from each other on comfortable sofas at one end of the room, the Southern tradition of beginning a visit with small talk seemed terribly inappropriate. I knew Sue wanted to know why I was there, and decided it was best to get to the point right away.
I never knew Dan Beacham and was not there to defend him. He was a mystery to me, I told her, and she probably knew more about him than I did. I was horrified by what he had apparently done, and wanted to learn the truth about him. I wanted her to tell me what she knew—warts and all. I wanted to record it on a tape recorder, I told her, so that I didn’t miss a word of her story.
She agreed, I clumsily set up the recorder, and we began what was to be a wrenching afternoon.
After Claude Cannon’s death at the mill, Sue’s mother, Iona Cannon, found herself with no job, six young children to raise and an eviction notice ordering her to vacate her mill-owned home. Because Honea Path was a one employer town, there was no option of finding alternative work there.
Mrs. Cannon, who had no money to relocate, had a simple choice: either lose her home, or go back to work for the very men responsible for killing her husband.
Even more humiliating, she would be allowed to resume her job at the Chiquola Mill only after she pledged to never again utter the word union.
The pain in Sue's face was vivid as she recalled the extraordinary grief her mother had endured and was forced to conceal throughout most of her life. “Can you imagine waking up one day with no husband, no job, and six children staring you in the face? Not knowing where your next meal is coming from. That’s what my mom faced.”
While at least one of the Chiquola widows placed her children in an orphanage, Sue said her mother chose to keep her family together. First, that meant taking a job at the mill—and the oath of silence that came with it. “They talked to her like they wanted to. They told her to either take the job on their terms or leave.”
I asked Sue what it was like at home in those days. Did her mother ever talk about what happened to their father at the mill? No, she responded, Iona Cannon’s grief played out not in words, but in actions—sometimes bizarre actions.
One was a morbid habit. At night, Mrs. Cannon often sat quietly for hours at home clenching the blood-soaked clothes her husband wore at the time of his death. She stopped only after Sue’s brother, Marvin—who could no longer endure the routine—took his father’s tattered garments and buried them in a nearby field.
Even then, Mrs. Cannon refused to let go. She searched the ground near her home, digging in various spots in a fruitless effort to recover the clothes.
Then Sue told me about the infamous “bleeding sidewalk.”
After being shot three times in the back and twice in the hand, he bled profusely, leaving an immense blood stain in the concrete.
Over time, Sue told me, the stain faded and was barely visible —except when the sidewalk was wet. “When it rained the blood stain would come back a dark, copper-looking color. A lot of people came to look at the ‘bleeding sidewalk’ when it rained. The neighbors complained, but the mill wouldn’t do anything.”
Then, about eight years after the shooting, the two sections of stained concrete were quietly removed. Honea Path’s legendary “bleeding sidewalk” was suddenly no more.
It didn’t matter to Iona Cannon, who, after her husband’s killing, never set foot on that sidewalk again. “We had no car and walked everywhere. Whenever we went into town, mom refused to use that sidewalk,” Sue said.
“She would take us a back way behind the mill through the weeds and we’d cross the railroad tracks to get into town. Only when I was grown did I understand that she didn’t want to walk where daddy was killed.”
Even with Iona’s mill job, the family faced years of poverty and near starvation. “I saw mom diluting a can of Carnation milk with water to make cornbread to feed six children,” Sue said, unable to hold back the tears. “It must have been hard for her knowing we were going hungry.”
At this point, Sue began to sob. Crying has always unnerved me. I felt guilt for making her tell this story. Should I leave? No, I thought, I’ll just wait.
We sat quietly. Time froze. It seemed like hours went by. When Sue recovered, I asked if she felt like going on. Yes, she said. Her mother would want this story told.
And it was only because I had apologized for the actions of my grandfather, she said, that she decided to see me at all. No one else from the side of the mill’s management had ever expressed remorse. Not in 60 years. She was determined to go on.
Composed for the moment, the story continued.
On rare occasions, there was unexpected help. Iona would hear a knock on the front door. When she answered, no one would be there. On the porch, however, she’d find several bags of groceries. Though the family never found out who left the food, Iona suspected it was the man witnesses said shot her husband.
“There had to be some sleepless nights for these people,” Sue said. “If there weren’t, then they didn’t have a conscience. I don’t know how these people that did the shooting—for jobs or money or whatever—lived with themselves. They shot people whose kids went to the same school with their kids. They shared the same benches in church with the family members of the ones they killed. They watched as the families of these workers nearly starved, living on beans and fat meat or whatever they could find. I think many of them suffered for it the rest of their lives.”
About four years after the Chiquola violence, Tom Stalcup, one of the deputized workers who shot at strikers from a mill window, visited Mrs. Cannon. Stalcup told the widow he was ashamed of his role in the shooting and asked her for forgiveness. “He told her he couldn’t live right until he made it right with her,” Sue said.
Did Stalcup, I asked, tell Mrs. Cannon who gave the order to fire at the workers? Yes, Sue said, her mother had asked that very question.
“Dan Beacham,” Stalcup had answered. Not only did Dan Beacham give the order for the men to shoot, Stalcup said, but the mill superintendent told the deputized gunmen to kill every striker they could, no matter who it might be.
“Mr. Stalcup seemed to have a lot of trouble with this through the years,” Sue said.
Iona Cannon died at age sixty-four, never discussing the events at the mill outside of her own home. “Some days she’d talk about it. Other days she wouldn’t. She never got over my father. Never,” Sue said. “But I never saw her show any hate…not one word against them.”
Sue Hill’s compelling story is part of my “Wild History” project now on Kickstarter.