Economics

It wasn’t just wages we wanted.

On this Labor Day, I bring you “It Wasn’t Just Wages We Wanted, But Freedom”: The 1946 Tobacco Leaf House Workers Organizing in Eastern North Carolina, a compilation of all known scholarship related to the Tobacco Workers International Union and Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers’ mass organizing campaign. The campaign secured union contracts at more than 30 leaf houses, and workers engaged in voter registrations and political action that presaged the civil rights movement a decade later. 

In an introduction to the first edition, Phoenix Historical Society’s Jim Wrenn noted, “This movement began as early as March 1946 when three workers at Export Leaf in Wilson — Aaron Best, Harvey Moore and Chester Newkirk — met with TWIU organizer Dr. R.A. Young … at Best’s home on East Nash Street in Wilson. This meeting led to the establishment of TWIU Local 259 at Export Leaf, the leading tobacco local in Wilson. Best became its first president, Moore its first secretary and Newark its first treasurer. Local 259 members reached out to workers at five other Wilson leaf houses, who were organized as Locals 260, 268, 270, 271, and 272. Today, Local 259 has been absorbed into local 270, the last surviving union local of the 1946 movement.”

The work was published by the Phoenix Historical Society, an organization devoted to the preservation of the African American history of Edgecombe County, and I purchased this copy directly from them.

Barton College’s oral history project.

The introduction to Barton College’s Crossing the Tracks: An Oral History of East and West Wilson:

“Starting in the spring of 2013 and concluding in the fall of 2014, Barton College students began interviewing Wilson residents about social, cultural, political, and economic relations between residents of East and West Wilson, and how these relations have changed over the past sixty to seventy years. 

“In spite of the many significant achievements of the modern Civil Rights Movement, our nation, state, and community bear the scars and legacies of a deeply troubled racial history that continues to impact our relationships. While we might like to forget or gloss over the painful part of that history, its effect lingers, and denying it will not make it go away.  As the writer James Baldwin once said, ‘The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.’  One of the goals of Crossing the Tracks, then, is to bring these unconscious forces of history into our consciousness, so that we might begin to confront the historical effects of white supremacy and begin the process of healing.

“A history of segregation, built on a foundation of white supremacy, created a separate but unequal society.  And the traditional historical narrative is at best an incomplete history, written and preserved by those who hold political, social, and economic power.  It too often omits the strong voices and tremendous contributions of those on the margins of power.  Part of the mission of the Freeman Round House Museum is to fill this gap in the historical record by preserving and publicizing the contributions of African American Wilsonians to education, medicine, the arts, criminal justice, and entertainment.  Crossing the Tracks supports this mission.  It is an accessible collection of first-person accounts of life in Wilson that students, scholars, and the general public can use to study and write about this remarkable, underrepresented history.  In many ways, it builds on the work of Dr. Charles W. McKinney, Jr., whose book, Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina, documents decades of committed struggle by East Wilson residents to lay the groundwork for the modern Civil Rights Movement.”

The project includes videotaped interviews with 22 residents of East Wilson. The recollections of many, including Samuel Lathan, Roderick Taylor Jr., and Mattie Bynum Jones, date to the 1930s and ’40s, the latter decades covered by the blog. Barton College partnered with the Freeman Roundhouse and Museum to obtain these invaluable stories and all are available online.

Henry Joyner, whose credit is good.

Wilson Daily Times, 24 September 1929.

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In the 1880 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Simon Joyner, 38; wife Venus, 36; and children Mary A.F., 14, William H., 11, Dossy, 9, Jacen, 7, and Charley, 2.

On 5 January 1895, Henry Joyner, 26, of Taylors township, son of Simon and Venus Winstead, married Margaret Winstead, 27, of Taylors township, daughter of Berry and Luenda Winstead, in Taylors township.

In the 1900 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Henry Jones, 31; wife Margret, 31; and children James, 14, Lou, 10, William H., 6, Herbert, 4, Maggie, 3, and Anna, 1 month.

In the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: on Thompson Road, farmer Henry Joyner, 42; wife Margaret, 42; and children Lula, 18, William, 17, Hubbert, 15, Maggie, 13, Annie, 10, Obie, 8, Bettie, 4, Luther, 2, Theodore, 3 months, and James, 24.

In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: farmer Henry Joyner, 52; wife Margaret, 51; and children Annie, 20, Obie, 18, Bettie, 13, Luther, 11, Theodore, 9, and Lizzie, 6; and grandson Nathan, 6 months.

In the 1930 census of Jackson township, Nash County, North Carolina: farmer Henry Joyner, 60; wife Margaret, 60; children Anne, 26, Obie, 25, Bettie, 24, Luther, 21, Lizzie, 16, and Nathan, 10; and grandchildren Josephine, 14, Rosella, 12, Edward, 10, and Elmus Eatmon, 8.

In the 1940 census of Jackson township, Nash County: Obie Joyner, 38; wife Gladys, 20; father Henry Joyner, 71; mother Margret Joyner, 70; sister Annie, 40; brother Luther, 30; nephew Curtis, 7; niece Leona Eatmon, 28; nephew Nathan Eatmon, 28; and lodger Elmus Eatmon, 19.

Henry Joyner died 13 June 1944 in Jackson township, Nash County. Per his death certificate, he was 78 years old; was born in Wilson County to Simon and Venus Joyner of Wilson County; was a farmer; was married to Margaret Joyner; and was buried in Granite Point cemetery, Wilson County. Obie Joyner was informant.

Margaret Joyner died 18 October 1944 in Jackson township, Nash County. Per her death certificate, she was 77 years old; was a widow; was born in Nash County to Berry and Lurenda Winstead of Nash County; and was buried in Granite Point cemetery, Wilson County. Obie Joyner was informant.

Thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for the clipping.

A tree fell on him.

Wilson Daily Times, 8 February 1944.

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In the 1870 census of Cokey township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Peyton Vick, 29; wife Ellen, 21; children Henry, 11, Riley, 9, Roxana, 3, and Isadora, 2; and Zady Mercer, 58.

In the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farmer Peyton Vick, 24; wife Ellen, 24; and children Rily, 18, Roxie, 13, Isadora, 12, Lou C., 10, Defada, 8, Sablaska, 6, Investa, 4, and Invoida, 1.

On 27 October 1887, Jerry Parker, 21, of Wilson County, married Roxey Vick, 22, of Wilson County, at Paton Vick’s in Toisnot township.

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: widow Roxy Parker, 24, and children Joseph, 14, Minnie, 13, Elenn, 12, Armena, 11, Mathew, 10, and Defatie, 2.

On 19 April 1903, Charlie Hines, 40, of Wilson township, son of Wesley and Ollie Hines, married Rox Anna Parker, 40, of Wilson township, daughter of Payton and Ellen Vick. Elder B.W. Tippett, a Free Will Baptist minister, performed the ceremony in the presence of Stephen Strickland, Wm. H. Tippett, and H.F. Boswell, all of Elm City.

In the 1916 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Parker Roxie A (c) h Harper’s la nr Herring av

Seab Parker registered for the World War I draft in 1918 in Nash County, North Carolina. Per his registration card, he was born in March 1884; lived on Route 2, Elm City; farmed for J.W. Wells; and his nearest relative was Clora Parker.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Lipscomb Road, widow Roxie Parker, 50, cook, and daughter Ellen, 21, farm laborer. Next door: William H. Knight, 22; wife Minnie, 24; brothers-in-law Cephus, 29, Menus, 22, and Mathew, 18; and lodgers Mary Saunders, 25, and her children Lebis, 10, and Lovie, 8.

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Parker Roxie A (c) laundress h 731 Harper

In the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Parker Roxie A (c) laundress h 802 Viola

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 811 Viola, laundress Ellen Gay, 36; mother Roxanna Parker, 67; and nephew Matthew, 16.

In the 1940 census of Stoney Creek township, Nash County: in a prison camp, Sebe Parker, 65, residence Wilson County.

Charlie Seab Parker died 7 February 1944 in Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 52 years old; was born in Wilson to Jerry Parker and Roxie Vick; worked as laborer for Evans Bros. Sawmill; and lived in Rocky Mount, Nash County.

News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 19 April 1944.

Roxie Parker died 8 August 1949 at her home at 616 Viola Street, Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 6 April 1847 [likely, 20 years] in Edgecombe County to Hayden Vick and Ellen Jones and was a widow. Informant was Minus Parker.

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Wilson Daily Times, 30 August 1949.

BB&T considers its past.

These are the opening paragraphs of a statement issued a few days ago by Kelly King, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Truist Bank, acknowledging the institution’s ties to slavery. Truist was formed in December 2019 from the merger of banking giants SunTrust and BB&T. BB&T — Branch Banking and Trust — was born in Wilson in 1872.

The tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others before them have caused our nation to come face-to-face with its history of systemic racism. The structural racial injustices that have been levied against African Americans were born from a terrible national legacy – slavery. We’ll never be able to adequately right the wrongs of the past, but it’s our obligation as leaders in the business community to publicly and passionately condemn these injustices with greater commitment, focus and energy.

This national discussion also has created a great deal of introspection here at Truist. As we work toward building a more equitable society, we must consider our own past and acknowledge the role our heritage companies played over 100 years ago to perpetuate the atrocity of slavery and the repression of enslaved people, leading to systemic disadvantages their descendants have endured for generations. This includes our early institutions, which had close ties to industries of that era that profited from slavery. We deeply regret and denounce these shameful aspects of our history, both known and unknown.

King’s gesture on behalf of Truist is nice one but, in focusing on the bank’s actions “over 100 years ago,” he stops short of laying bare and claiming ownership of the role BB&T played throughout the whole of the twentieth century in creating and supporting “systemic disadvantages” for African-Americans. In other words, profiting on the backs of black people and shutting them out of places and positions of power started with slavery, but did not end there.

Instead, the mea culpa moves on to back-patting:

While this acknowledgement of our early history is difficult, our organization has also demonstrated a sincere commitment through the years to affect positive change and stand for equity in the communities where we live and work. 

Cue bullet points.

King’s memo is light on what he is actually apologizing for. BB&T corporate publication “Our account: A history of BB&T” — last updated in 2012 and in desperate need of a hard, new look — offers clues to the company’s official framing of its roots: “when hostilities ended in 1865 and the South was forced to accept defeat, the farmers-turned-soldiers returned home and found their property destroyed, livestock gone, tools and equipment either ruined or lost, and their money worthless.” “The world that they had left their homes to defend existed no longer. The world to which they returned was chaotic and was to remain so for several years.” “… [T]he state faced a broken economy with corruption in government, and when help seemed to come from no quarter, North Carolinians turned to each other for aid.”  Into the breach of Radical Reconstruction, the story goes, stepped Alpheus Branch and Thomas J. Hadley, both Confederate veterans and the sons of wealthy former slaveowners.

You can read the rest of “Our Account” for yourself, but don’t expect to find anything in it about structural racism. Branch and Hadley lent money to struggling farmers and merchants in Wilson County. Able to borrow money at reasonable interest rates, farmers moved into the cash economy, planting cotton and, beginning in the 1880s, bright-leaf tobacco, a crop that would pour money into pockets across the county. An acknowledgment — beyond the performative — of the “shameful aspects” of BB&T’s history would require an admission that “farmers and merchants” did not include African-Americans, and an examination of the ways that BB&T served, or did not serve, this group embodied and perpetuated injustice. However, per the 3 July 2020 Charlotte Observer, Chairman “King said … a full inquiry of the bank’s past was unlikely.”

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  • Alpheus P. Branch (1843-1893) — Branch’s father Samuel W. Branch listed 38 enslaved African-Americans in the 1860 slave schedule of Halifax County, North Carolina. Branch fought for the Confederacy as a member of the Scotland Neck Mounted Riflemen, 3rd N.C. Cavalry. In 1865, Branch married Nannie Barnes, daughter of Joshua Barnes (who would become a charter member of an early iteration of BB&T.) Barnes is styled the “Father of Wilson County.” He was also a committed owner of one of the largest groups of enslaved African-Americans in Wilson County.
  • Thomas J. Hadley (1838-1917) — Hadley’s father Thomas Hadley listed 37 enslaved African-Americans in the 1860 slave schedule of Wilson County. Hadley rose to captain in Company A, 55th N.C. Infantry.

Many thanks to Brian D. Dalton and Linda Clark Parks for bringing Truist’s statement to my attention.

Fisher suggests a labor camp.

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Wilson Daily Times, 6 October 1942.

In the fall of 1942, farmers complained that, rather than spending their final weeks toiling to harvest crops, men waiting to be called up for military service were taking “vacations” and carousing instead. Edwin D. Fisher, ex-confirmed cabin steward, U.S. Navy, took pen in hand to suggest a solution. He was willing to join one hundred others to purchase ten acres of land in Wilson County for the establishment of a “federal migratory labor camp.” Fisher had been assured by his neighbor, “Nurse Raison,” that migrant workers were harvest specialists who did not seek “recreation or jaunts into surrounding towns,” being satisfied with the entertainment provided in the camp. Moreover, “sweat worn men, women and youth rest in their cots at night” in such camps. Fisher had seen it with his own eyes.

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In the 1910 census of New Haven, Connecticut: at 30 Hazel Street, hardware merchant Edwin W. Fisher, 37; wife Daisy, 32; and children Edwin D., 16, Eugene L., 13, Clarence R., 10, Anna V., 6, Milton W., 3, and Susie A., 1.

Edwin Dortche Fisher registered for the World War I draft in New Haven, Connecticut. Per his registration card, he was born 1 February 1894 in Essex, Connecticut; resided at 26 Charles Street, New Haven; was a student and club car waiter; worked for the N.Y.N.H. & H. R.R., New York; and had a “weak back from injury.”

In the 1920 census of Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut: William Dorsey, 64, master mason; son-in-law Edwin Fisher, 26, steward on [illegible]; daughter Edith Fisher, 26; and their daughter Mary, 1.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: banker Judge D. Reid, 52, public school principal Elnora Reid, 50, sons Fredrick, 17, and Herbert, 14, and lodger Edwin D. Fisher, 36, a studio photographer. The house was owned free of mortgage and valued at $6000.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 302 Vick, widow Letitia Lovett, 62, born Georgia, dressmaker, and roomer Edwin D. Fisher, 46, “World War veteran.”

On 2 February 1941, Edwin D. Fisher, 47, son of Edwin W. Fisher and Nannie D. Fisher, married Letitia H. Lovett, 57, daughter of Frank and Sarah Jones, at Lovett’s residence. Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of Milton W. Fisher, Mrs. Almira Fisher, Mrs. Rosa B. McCuller, and Mrs. Eva L. Brown.

Letitia Lovette Fisher died 1 November 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 10 January 1876 in Georgia to Franklin Jones and an unknown mother; lived at 301 North Vick; was married Edwin Dortch Fisher; and was a seamstress and teacher.

Edwin Dortche Fisher died 15 November 1973 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 18 February 1893; lived at 301 North Vick Street; was a widower; and worked in photography. Harry J. Faison was informant.

The first line of defense is on the home front.

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Wilson Daily Times, 27 December 1941.

Negro Home Agent Jane Amos Boyd highlighted the efforts of homemaker Henrietta Ruffin to insure an ample food supply for her family and community. Ruffin canned 674 quarts of fruits, vegetables, and meats; bought 460 baby chicks; and sold more than eighty dollars worth of surplus eggs and chickens at a curb market.

Though Ruffin had a Pitt County address, she lived between Saratoga and the Wilson-Pitt County line.

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In the 1910 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: on Howards Path, farmer Jesse Ward, 26; wife Arey, 32; and children William, 14, Walton, 10, Henrietta, 10, Susan, 6, Kizie, 5, and Juanita, 1 month.

Charlie Ruffin, 21, of Saratoga, son of Ida Ruffin, married Henretta Moore, 18, of Saratoga, daughter of Ara Moore, on 25 January 1920 in Saratoga township. Washington Littles, a Disciples minister, performed the ceremony in the presence of William Dupree, Henry Stewart, and Arluster McNair, all of Saratoga.

In the 1920 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: on Fountain Road, farmer Charles Ruffin, 19; wife Henrietta, 19; mother Ida, 50, widow; sister Daisy, 13; and niece Mary, 12.

In the 1930 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: farm laborer Charles Ruffin, 30; wife Henritta, 28; and children Bertha, 9, Charles Jr., 8, James R., 6, Juntia, 2, and Gladis L., 10 months.

In the 1940 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: farmer Charles Ruffin, 39; wife Henretta, 38; and children Bertha, 19, Charles, 17, James R., 16, Juanita, 12, Gladys Lee, 10, Christine, 8, Bruce, 7, Bertie Mae, 4, and Curtis, 10 months.

Henrietta Moore Ruffin died 29 November 2004.

An example worthy of following.

The Special Collections Research Center of North Carolina State Libraries has digitized several annual reports submitted to the state’s Cooperative Extension Service by Negro County Extension Agent Carter W. Foster. Below, part 1 of a series revealing the 1942 report.

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“… I have attempted to give you an insight of the major activities carried on by Negro farmers in the county during the year.” Foster credited farm families, county officials, home economics extension agent Jane A. Boyd, the extension staffs at North Carolina State A.&T. and North Carolina State Universities, and members of the Negro school systems for the year’s successes.

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Foster named Mark Sharpe the Outstanding Man of the Year.

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Sharpe was born and reared on the farm he was buying. His father, a life-long tenant farmer, lived with him. Their landlord had made a standing offer to sell the farm for $6000 years before. “Not being satisfied with the manner in which his father was living,” Sharpe decided to buy. He happened upon an article about Farm Security Administration loans for low-income tenants. Within days he was approved. The farm was on Highway 42 on the Wilson-Edgecombe border, and about 40 of its 51 acres were suitable for farming.

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The house was in fairly good condition at purchase, but was upgraded with screens, paint and a pump on the back porch, and Sharpe constructed a laying house, a smokehouse and an outhouse.

Sharpe was a young man — just 29 years old. He was the father of five, a member of the Negro Farmers Advisory Committee, and a Neighborhood Lender. “He is an example worthy of following by many tillers of the soil.”

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