Civil Rights Unionism: Those Who Were Not Afraid

The following is an excerpt from Robert R. Korstad’s Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South. Drawing on scores of interviews with black and white tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Robert Korstad brings to life the forgotten heroes of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO. These workers confronted a system of racial capitalism that consigned African Americans to the basest jobs in the industry, perpetuated low wages for all southerners, and shored up white supremacy. 

Galvanized by the emergence of the CIO, African Americans took the lead in a campaign that saw a strong labor movement and the reenfranchisement of the southern poor as keys to reforming the South–and a reformed South as central to the survival and expansion of the New Deal. In the window of opportunity opened by World War II, they blurred the boundaries between home and work as they linked civil rights and labor rights in a bid for justice at work and in the public sphere.

Korstad’s Civil Rights Unionism was featured recently on our Universal Human Rights Month reading list.

At dawn on June 17, 1943, the haze that has developed during the cool early morning hours slowly begins to burn away. Seen from atop the R. J. Reynolds Building, far above the trees and church steeples, the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, slowly comes alive. The heat wave of the past two weeks continues. The ever-present smell of tobacco fills the air, a sickly-sweet odor that ties all the city’s inhabitants to the giant company.

In the valley known as Monkey Bottom on the east side of town, men and women emerge from dilapidated shotgun houses and slowly begin their ascent by foot up Third, Fourth, and Fifth Streets to the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the largest tobacco manufacturing complex in the world. Farther to the east, the buses of the black-owned Safe Bus Company make their rounds. At each stop Reynolds employees climb aboard, joined by hundreds of household workers headed for the white homes of Winston-Salem. From the north and south of town come white Reynolds employees, some on foot, some in cars, and some riding Duke Power buses. More white workers stream in from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, in cars with four and five passengers. Many of these daily migrants from Forsyth, Stokes, Wilkes, and Yadkin Counties have been up since daybreak, tending to the livestock on their farms or putting in an hour on their own tobacco crop before leaving for work.

It is Thursday, and the increased workload in place since early May is taking its toll. Black and white workers move slowly into separate lines as they file through the factory gates for the 7:30 A.M. starting time. They barely notice the “White only” and “Colored” markers at each of the seventy-two entrances, even as they obey and absorb these vivid reminders of the segregated world they all inhabit.

Other Reynolds employees are readying themselves for the day ahead as well. On his 120-acre farm in western Winston-Salem, John Clarke Whitaker, vice president of the company, glances at the headlines in the Winston-Salem Journal: the Allies had attacked Italy, and Churchill was planning his Balkan drive. The war was going well, but it was causing problems for tobacco manufacturers. The demand for cigarettes far exceeded all possible production; the military alone bought 20 percent of the company’s product. Yet the company found new machinery almost impossible to obtain. The labor shortage in the Carolina Piedmont also threatened the green leaf tobacco season that began in August. Reynolds needed 1,500 seasonal workers, and many who traditionally filled these positions had joined the armed forces or secured war-industry jobs.

The son of a local tobacco manufacturer, John Whitaker had begun working for Reynolds in 1913 after graduating from the University of North Carolina, and he prided himself on having operated Reynolds’s first cigarette-making machine. He joined the navy during World War I and then returned to Winston-Salem to head the company’s new employment office. He became vice president in charge of manufacturing in 1937 and fifteen years later would become chairman of the company. Whitaker knew the ins and outs of the Reynolds Tobacco Company firsthand. He was worried about the labor shortages and aware that his employees were being pushed to work harder than ever before.

Theodosia Gaither Simpson was one those overworked employees. A slender young African American woman, Simpson was fated to be John Whitaker’s antagonist. The two rivals, each with deep roots in North Carolina, shared a strong sense of family and a bedrock faith in education. Theodosia Simpson’s maternal grandfather moved from nearby Mocksville to teach school in Forsyth County. The rest of the family found work in town at Reynolds. Theodosia seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, but in 1936 the Depression forced her to drop out of Winston-Salem Teachers College after one year and go to work in the tobacco stemmeries to help support her family. Like Whitaker, Simpson knew all about tobacco production, indeed, more than she cared to know. This morning she caught the bus at the corner near her apartment on North Cherry Street, where she and her husband, Buck Simpson, lived, and headed reluctantly for her job on the fifth floor in the stemmery of Plant Number 65.

African American women, ranging in age from late teens to sixties, performed almost all the stemming in the Reynolds plants. They removed the hard center core from the tobacco leaf, a key step in the process that transformed the aged tobacco leaves into cigarettes, smoking tobacco, and chewing tobacco. Until the mid-1930s, hand stemming predominated; by 1943 most stemmers worked on a machine that cut the leaf away from the stem.

Robert Rodgers Korstad is associate professor of public policy studies and history at Duke University. He is a coauthor of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World and a coeditor of Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Talk about Life in the Segregated South.