In 1927 the quiet joys of Christmas came to an abrupt halt as a result of a shootout in downtown South Pittsburg, Tn., on the night of Dec. 25, 1927.
South Pittsburg during this period was the scene of bitter labor disputes involving union supporters and members and non-union advocates for a period of approximately eight years. The City of South Pittsburg was born in 1873 on the west bank of Tennessee approximately 30 miles from the railroad hub of Chattanooga. The original plan was for the little town to grow into a major southern industrial city similar to Birmingham, Ala., in the stove industry.
In 1886 the Perry Stove Company, based in Albany, N.Y., moved to South Pittsburg. As the result of management signing a national trade agreement with the International Molders Union of North America in 1891, South Pittsburg was heavily unionized. An anti-union company from Memphis, Tennessee, H. Wetter Manufacturing Company, bought the stove company and in the 1920’s became the town of South Pittsburg’s largest employer. Of the 2,500 residents around 750 worked at Wetter. Approximately 75 percent of the work force was union members and this percentage increased to around 90 percent after the agreement was signed. The plant gained a reputation of being a strong union shop with Local 165 becoming the largest and oldest local of the Molders Union in the entire South.
In the 1920s-1930s bitter labor disputes took place as the unions fought to preserve the status quo of the union shop (mandatory union membership) versus management efforts to adopt the open shop (voluntary union membership).
These ongoing efforts resulted in litigation in state courts in Marion County at Jasper and the federal district court in Chattanooga. Beginning in 1925 a number of stove manufacturers initiated a statewide effort to eliminate unions in the region. A number of strikes resulted in picket lines by the union and petitions to enjoin the strikers from picketing and acts of violence were sought by the companies. After a costly two-month strike the company finally recognized one of the unions that had not been enjoined from setting up a picket line by the federal injunction and union workers and supporters would not cross the picket and adversely affected the operation of the plant.
The conflicts that had divided the little town of South Pittsburg did not go away with the ending of the strike. The Wetter Manufacturing owner announced that he was moving one of his plans to Gadsden, Alabama, because of poor labor conditions.
Law enforcement officials became heavily involved in the labor controversies. Pro union Sheriff of Marion County, Washington Coppinger, had defeated open shop supporter Ben Parker in 1926 in a bitter and hostile election that initially involved the issue of raiding moonshine whisky stills but quickly involved the stove company labor dispute. Parker was subsequently hired as City Marshal in South Pittsburg.
On the night of Dec. 25, 1927, a gunfight took place at the corner of Cedar Avenue and Third Street in downtown South Pittsburg which resulted in the death of both Sheriff Coppinger and Marshall Parker in addition to four other law enforcement officers killed in the battle. Governor Henry Horton called in the Tennessee National Guard from Chattanooga to restore order. For several days 50 soldiers patrolled the streets of South Pittsburg.
Although some parts of it are disputed by descendants of those involved in the events of 1927 a detailed 18-page article by Barbara S. Haskew and Robert B. Jones written in 2001 titled Labor Strike in the Southern Stove Industry—Shootout at South Pittsburg is an excellent starting reference point covering the history of labor relations in Marion County and southeast Tennessee during the 1920s-1930s.
On July 20, 2014, a two-sided historical marker was placed near the scene of the Christmas night gunfight by the Tennessee Historic Commission which was sponsored by the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society.
The local society also maintains a historical museum which includes memorabilia from this important chapter in the life of South Pittsburg as well as artifacts from all aspects of the town.
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Jerry Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org