Shortly after World War II, Hattie Mae Henderson found work at Wilson Awning & Tent Company’s factory on South Douglas Street.
As recalled here, handling fabric and sewing the oversized tents was challenging work. The dresses and skirts women commonly wore in the 1940s were not suitable for maneuvering atop the long tables on which the tents were stitched, so Henderson and other female workers donned full-legged dungarees on the factory floor. These photos were taken in unnamed Wilson studios during this period.
Photograph in the collection of Hattie Henderson Ricks, now in the possession of Lisa Y. Henderson.
Hattie Henderson Ricks recounted the difficult work of men and women employed in the sewing room of Wilson Awning & Tent Company:
“There was a fellow when I was working in the tent and awning company. He was one of the boys that worked there that pulled the tent, the thing we had, where was on the table. You know it was a great big table, big as this whole length of this house. And he was on there and to pull the table, when you were putting them flaps, somebody had to pull it around and [inaudible] sewing then you sit in the cubby holes, and the machine was up there. And I was at the bobbin, I had to thread the bobbin. And time I’d get around it and thread – oh it was a big place, it was all the way ‘round and like a horseshoe. The way the sewing machines were made. And then this thing was built up, but it was this material to lay on, and somebody had to be up on that thing to pull it through the machine ‘cause they couldn’t push it. They’d just push it a little bit out, and sewing’d go along, and it’d pile up, and they had to keep it carried through. And I’d thread the bobbins.
“The war [World War II], I think, was over, but they were making, it was Boy Scout tents, like for camping tents or whatever it was. And so when I went there I was pulling on the table where was back there. I didn’t like that, so I said, well, it was a white girl was threading bobbins and so she was sick or something one day, and she didn’t come to work, so they let me. I said, “Let me thread the bobbins.” They said, “Well, somebody’ll have to thread ‘em,” said, “Go ‘head.” So I went there, didn’t know nothing ‘bout how to thread ten bobbins on one spindle. So I looked at the thing, and a girl had to show me. So I got a hold of it, and it was those little round bobbins where you put on this long thing, you slide ‘em on there and you thread when you start off with the first one, then it goes around it, jump right up and push the other one up there and jump up and … But you had to cut that thread on the bobbin, and so that’s where I messed up when I first got there. When I would take the razor blade and cut in there, I cut two or three pieces and every time they’d always be having thread breaking, the thread … and it was oil, and you couldn’t take it with your hands and break it. So then I have a shoebox – not a shoebox, but a cigarette box, cigar box, and that thing was full of bobbins. And I had to take it around, all the way ‘round and come up the other side, and back to place. Any time I [inaudible] piling up again, go ‘round again. “I’m out of thread! Bring me some thread!” I said, ‘Lord have mercy, these folks is there ‘fore I can get this thing together.’ And then it come to me how to work it. And, didn’t have so much oil in it. If you let the oil stay in there too long, it’d make it slick, and it didn’t half cut. But you had to put it in oil because it would break. Them little … And then it got the thing messed all up under there, and the white guy had to come there and take his pocket knife and reach down there and cut it out and take some scissors with the end and try to cut the place out. So then the white girl where was working there, she didn’t like it either. She didn’t like to thread bobbins, she’d rather pull the tent, had to have probably four, five of them girls up there pulling tents and that thing was just as big as that whole – it was big as this house. Bigger than this thing here, the table that it was on. And it [inaudible]. But I still stayed on there until the place closed up.
“And after I left there, that’s when I went over to the hospital [then the Eastern North Carolina Sanatorium, which opened in 1943 for the treatment of tuberculosis patients, now Longleaf Neuro-Medical Treatment Center] and worked. I was going over there one day and so, Lizzie – I’ll never forget what was her name – she said she was going over there to see if she could get a job. And I said, well, told her, “Come by for me,” said, “We’ll go over there.” And both of us went over there. They hired me and didn’t hire her. So I worked there ‘til I come up here to Philadelphia.”
Wilson Awning & Tent was located at 105 South Douglas Street during Hattie Henderson Ricks’ employment. The company closed this location and moved to Highway 301 South in 1948.
Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.