Lucille Thornburgh, union organizer and labor newspaper editor, was born in 1908 in Strawberry Plains, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Thornburgh. After graduating from Rhea County High School in Dayton she lived in Denver, then Los Angeles, and finally Detroit before returning to Knoxville early in the Depression.
Thornburgh was employed at the Cherokee Spinning Company, where she worked fifty-hour weeks for less than ten dollars per week. In 1933, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Recovery Act, which included provisions that protected the right of workers to organize, Thornburgh and seven coworkers drew up a union charter. With the help of a local union organizer, they signed up all 603 employees at Cherokee Mills. In 1934 Cherokee workers joined textile workers across the South in a general strike known as the Uprising of 1934. Knoxville workers remained out for eight weeks, but the strike collapsed following the sudden death of owner Hal Mebane, an event Thornburgh says workers interpreted in religious terms. When the workers returned, Thornburgh was blacklisted, and other mill owners refused to hire her.
Thornburgh next worked in a variety of jobs, but returned to Knoxville to take a position with the American Federation of Labor in 1943. She became the first woman to serve on the board of the Tennessee Federation of Labor and in 1947 received a one-year scholarship to study labor and economic issues at Ruskin College at Oxford University, England. When she returned, Thornburgh became associate editor of the East Tennessee Labor News, a newspaper she edited from 1961 to 1973. In 1995 Thornburgh was featured in the PBS film Uprising of ’34, which documented the general textile strike.