Ceremony commemorates 1934 Saylesville Massacre

Ceremony commemorates 1934 Saylesville Massacre

Two bullet holes mark the spot in Moshassuck Cemetery where a battle between striking mill workers and members of the Rhode Island State Guard left four dead in 1934. (Breeze photos by Nicole Dotzenrod)

CENTRAL FALLS – While strolling through the rows of grave markers at the historic Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls, the casual passerby may not give a second glance to a single tombstone with two holes, but the stone has a story to tell.

The holes were created by bullets, blown through the headstone on Labor Day 1934 when members of the Rhode Island State Guard fired at local mill workers who were striking for better working conditions. Labor Day strikes across the state had been peaceful, except for at the two mills owned by Lincoln’s Manville Jenckes Co., one of which sat next to the cemetery.

When mill owners hired replacement workers, or “scabs,” thousands of strikers and union supporters refused to let them break the picket line. When guardsmen attempted to push the strikers toward the cemetery, a riot broke out, scattering the strikers and guardsmen into Moshassuck.

Two bullets were shot clean through a headstone. Workers were tear-gassed by guardsmen, and four were killed by the end of the struggle, leading the United Textile Workers to call off the strike two weeks later. Today, an epitaph recalls those who were injured, wounded or gave their lives for the American working class during the General Textile Strike in Woonsocket and Saylesville.

“Lest we not forget: Charles Gorczynski, William Blackwood, Jude Courtmanche, Leo Rouette,” it reads. Gorczynski was a 17-year-old textile worker from Central Falls, killed by guardsmen at Moshassuck. Police later shot 44-year-old Blackwood, an onlooker. In the end, four strikers were killed and 132 people were injured in what became known as the Saylesville Massacre.

The events of that day in 1934 are remembered annually on Labor Day with a ceremony organized by the Rhode Island Labor History Society. It is held at the cemetery, just a few rows from the headstone pockmarked with bullet holes. Several community members and local officials gathered at Moshassuck on Monday to share the story of the factory workers who fought for better conditions.

Speaking Monday, Rhode Island College professor and RIC/AFT President Quenby Olmsted Hughes said unemployment was 21.7 percent when United Textile Workers of America approved their strike.

The one and ultimate gain of the strike and its fallout, Hughes said, was the formation of the National Labor Relations Board and the passing of the Wagner Act/National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to protect private-sector employees’ rights.

“They had unlivable wages … families were literally starving,” she told onlookers. “They asked for a 30-hour workweek, higher pay and the right to organize and were told that none of the demands are economically feasible.”

Hughes said that message still resonates today, adding, “in 2018, the trajectory for workers’ rights has been deeply shaken. Labor turmoil and unrest are not things of the past. We are in real danger of returning workers to the conditions they faced prior to the Wagner Act.”

“We cannot be complacent,” she said.

“We need to step out of our personal comfort zones and fight for workers rights. We must be brave like the workers in Saylesville.”

Speaking at Monday’s ceremony at Moshassuck Cemetery, Rhode Island College professor and RIC/AFT president Quenby Olmsted Hughes shares the story of the Saylesville Massacre of 1934.
Partington & Sweeney perform their song “1934 Saylesville Massacre,” which commemorates the struggle that occurred at Moshassuck.