tobacco

Thousands of tobacco factory workers laid off.

For much of the twentieth century, tobacco factories and stemmeries employed more African-American workers than any other industry in Wilson. The work was low-paid, mostly seasonal, and often performed by women.

In September 1939, shortly after the season began, Imperial Tobacco abruptly released hundreds of newly hired workers, sparking mass layoffs by other factories. The state employment office opened a temporary processing location at Reid Street Community Center, but officials warned that most workers had already maxed out their yearly unemployment eligibility. 

Wilson Daily Times, 13 September 1939.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

You had better get them back here on Monday.

Wilson Daily Times, 26 June 1942.

The end of the Depression did not curtail the power of employment offices over the bodies of African-American laborers. We saw protests in the late 1930s against workers being sent to toil in deplorable conditions in Duplin County strawberry fields.  In 1942, even tobacco barons were crying foul as the employment office shipped nearly 200 men, women, and children to Delaware to work in fields, despite a severe  farmworker labor shortage in Wilson County. “Suggestions pointing to the ‘drafting’ of farm and tobacco labor if the work could not be done on a voluntary basis were made at the meeting.”

Three men charged with stealing tobacco from Black farmer; selling it in town.

Wilson Daily Times, 7 September 1922. 

Tenant farmer Roscoe Pearson raised tobacco on Green Watson’s farm between Wilson and Kenly, a town at the edge of Johnston and Wilson Counties. He stored his crop in a packhouse near the road. Three white Johnston County men were accused of stealing his tobacco and selling it at Planters Warehouse in Wilson. A white Wilson policeman testified against the trio, asserting that one of them asked if he thought the matter would be dropped if they paid Watson (not Pearson) for the tobacco. 

  • Roscoe Pearson — I have found no record of Pearson in Wilson County.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Where we worked: Export Leaf Tobacco Company.

Though they once dominated block on block of south downtown Wilson, relatively few tobacco factory and warehouse buildings remain today. The hulking old Export Leaf building, however, still stands at Mercer and Banks Streets.

The building was originally built for John E. Hughes Company, as shown on the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map.

Sanborn fire insurance map, Wilson, N.C., 1922.

The wooden buildings shown in yellow are long gone. I took the photo above standing in what would have been the space between them. Samuel H. Vick and Andrew J. Townsend owned considerable property in the area, rented to workers at Export and other nearby tobacco companies.

The 200 laborers would have been largely African-American. From “Six Firms Operate Eight Tobacco Redrying Plants in Wilson,” Wilson Daily Times, 19 August 1955.

Guy Cox or Charles Raines shot this image of Black women sorting tobacco leaves at Export about 1946.

The photo below, which accompanied the article above, dates from a time just outside that covered in Black Wide-Awake, but depicts a scene that would have been much the same ten or twenty years earlier.

Wilson Daily Times, 19 August 1955.

Export Leaf Tobacco Company, Images of Historic Wilson, N.C., Images of North Carolina, lib.digitalnc.org.

Black businesses, 1913, no. 2: South Spring (now Douglas) Street.

Page 3, Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, N.C., 1913.

Cross-referencing the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory and the 1913 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson reveals the specific locations of Black-owned businesses just after the turn of the century.

Above, the west side of the 400 block of South Spring [now Douglas] Street, showing a heavy concentration of small restaurants and groceries. This stretch bordered the American Tobacco (later Liggett & Meyers) tobacco warehouse to the rear and was a block away from Smith’s warehouse, Watson warehouse, Export Leaf warehouse, a larger American Tobacco warehouse, and the Norfolk & Southern cotton loading platform, and these businesses no doubt targeted the swarms of warehouse workers. 

Meet Virginia native Jacob Tucker here; Neverson Green here and here; and Nannie Best here

Agnes Taylor does not appear in Wilson census records, but her full entry in the 1912 city directory shows that she lived at 418 South Spring, just a few lots down from her eating house.

All these buildings have been demolished. 

A glimpse of the past.

To stand at the intersection of Goldsboro and Spruce Streets, looking northeast, is to see Wilson much as it looked in the 1920s. Several early tobacco factories operated in this area, and the surrounded streets were lined with the small houses rented to African-American factory laborers.

At left, the two-story brick building, in its original cast-iron form, was Dibrell Brothers Tobacco Factory and Re-Ordering Plant and, by 1922, was the warehouse of tobacco brokers Monk-Adams & Company. The rail line, originally a spur of the Norfolk & Southern Rail Road, is visible in the detail of the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map below. 

The low brick building at the right of the photo contained the office and tobacco storage and drying areas of the British-American Tobacco Company’s facility. The water tower at the far end of the block above can be seen on the map below as a small gray square with a blue insert near the corner of Spruce and Spring [now Douglas] Streets. 

The tin-roofed red building in middle distance appears to be an expanded version of the small auto shed marked just above the rail line on the Sanborn map. 

The three houses on the west side of Spring/Douglas Street have been demolished, but the little saddlebag house in the distance, its roof white with the remnants of a brief snow, is 515 South Douglas Street. Formerly numbered 601, the house appears in Sanborn maps as early as 1908.

 

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, January 2021.