tobacco culture

Holman reminisces.

Wilson Daily Times, 28 August 1937.

Among other things George H. Holman recalled about his early days in Wilson was disinterring Confederates from the old white Wilson cemetery for reburial in Maplewood.


In the 1870 census of Bushy Fork township, Person County, N.C., George Holeman, 22, is a farm laborer in the household of white farmer Thomas H. Briggs, 56.

On 6 September 1892, George Holman, 24, son of West and Nancy Jane Holman, of Person County, N.C., married Bell Noell, 18, daughter of Chas. and Chis. Noell, of Person County, in Roxboro, North Carolina.

In the 19o0 census of Wilson, Wilson County: day laborer George Holdman, 46; wife Isibeller, 27, cooking; and sons Nathanial, 5, and Arther, 1.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: George Holden [sic], 57; wife Isabella, 35; and children Arthur, 11, and Thelma, 8.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: widow [sic] Belle Holeman, 40, private cook; son John, 21, oil mill laborer; and daughter-in-law Thelma, 2o,

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Holmon Geo (c; Hattie) lab Watson Whse  h 601 Wiggins

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Holmon Geo lab h 601 Wiggins

George Holman died 9 January 1940 at the State Hospital in Goldsboro, Wayne County, N.C. Per his death certificate, he was born in 1856; was a widower; lived in Wilson County; and had worked as a laborer. He was buried at the State Hospital.

Handel’s Chorus performs at the Tobacco Festival.

Wilson Daily Times, 10 August 1940.

Hartford Bess’ Handel’s Chorus sang at the 1940 Tobacco Festival, performing scenes that we would today find cringey. In the spirit of “don’t hate the player, hate the game,” I try not to judge.

What passed for fun in the Tobacco Festival parade.

The City of Wilson commenced its annual Tobacco Festival parades in 1936. These appalling images were shot in July 1939 as the parade advanced up Nash Street. This is what passed for fun in Wilson as weeds shot toward the sky in Vick Cemetery.

A giant mammy.

The Junior King and Queen in a palanquin carried by shirtless black men. This mini-float, sponsored by the Lions Club, took a second-place prize.

Another Lions Club’s parade entry. White boys dressed as big game hunters lead bare-chested, barefooted black boys whose features have been exaggerated with white paint. They are dressed as “natives” and wear clown hats. (The top photo was taken after the parade at the Charles L. Coon High School athletic field. The bottom was shot as the boys approached Tarboro Street.) As described in the 18 July 1939 edition of the Wilson Daily Times, “the Frank Buck motif got in the parade again with an alligator in a cage and ‘Bring ’em back alive‘ painted on it.'”

My thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing these photos, which were likely taken for the Wilson Chamber of Commerce.

Tobacco Festival parade scene.

The Tobacco Festival parade was an annual event for about a decade beginning in the late 1930s. This 1939 photograph depicts an African-American man on an ox-drawn cart towing(?) a Model T labeled “TAXI.” The shot was taken just west of the intersection of East Nash and Goldsboro Streets, in front of what was then the Branch Banking & Trust building. A number of African-American spectators can be seen at the curb.

A rare image of tobacco workers in the 1920s.

A rare image capturing workers on a Wilson County tobacco farm preparing to “barn” or “put in” green tobacco to begin the curing process. There is no information identifying the eighteen or so people, including five young children, depicted. Two — at far left, just visible behind the boy, and at far right, leaning against a fence — were African-American.

This photograph is part of the Commercial Museum Collection at U.N.C.’s Southern Historical Collection. Per the collection’s description, “the Commercial Museum, located in Philadelphia, Pa., was in operation from 1897 to 2010. Modeled after the great exhibition halls of the World’s Fairs (World Fair, Universal Exposition) of the late nineteenth century, the Museum offered a vast selection of displays and information related to commerce and trade in Pennsylvania, across the United Sates, and the international marketplace. The Museum maintained a large collection of photographs documenting a variety of industries, agriculture, and trade in many areas of the United States. These images were marketed for use in publications around the United States and the world. The images, circa 1923-1939, document agriculture and industry in Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Catawba, Cleveland, Gaston, Halifax, Moore, Sampson, Wayne, and Wilson counties in North Carolina. A few towns are also identified. Subjects include cotton, farming, lumber, pottery, and tobacco. …”

Scan 4, Series 1, Wilson County Tobacco Production, ca. 1926; Commercial Museum (Philadelphia, Pa.) Collection of North Carolina Photos, ca. 1923-1939; Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Where we worked: Southern Tobacco Company.

On the back of a truck in Wilson’s 1939 Tobacco Festival parade, African-American employees of Southern Tobacco Company No. 2 simulate processing tobacco. At the time the photo was shot, the float was passing in front of the county courthouse in the 100 block of East Nash Street.

Photo 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,