tobacco culture

The stemmery.

This corbeled chimney is all that remains of the stemmery that stood at the corner of Railroad and Stemmery Streets. A stemmery was a factory in which stems were stripped from cured leaves prior to processing for shipment to companies that manufactured tobacco products.  Stemmeries provided seasonal employment to thousands of African-Americans, mostly women, an the small streets around it were lined with worker housing.

The original facility at this location, erected by Richmond Maury & Company in 1896, burned in 1920. It was replaced by a three-story building in 1922. This chimney vented smoke from the boiler room that powered the plant. A succession of tobacco companies operated this stemming and re-drying facility until 1973, when Montrose Hanger Company moved in.  Montrose Hander operated into the twenty-first century, but had long vacated the building when it was razed about 2012.

Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, October 2018.

Lost ‘hoods, no. 3.

As illustrated in earlier “Lost ‘Hoods” posts, downtown Wilson was once shot through with narrow alleys packed with the tiny double-shotgun dwellings of African-American tobacco workers. In addition to Banks Alley and Oil Mill Alley and Parker’s Alley (also known as Vick’s Alley) and Young’s Alley, there were:

  • Sunshine Alley

Sunshine Alley lay in the shadow of Liggett & Meyers’ tobacco warehouse and within a block of Smith’s, Planter’s Warehouse, Banner, Monk-Adams, Farmers and Watson Warehouses. As shown in the 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson, the western end of the alley was a slot off Goldsboro Street in the block otherwise bounded by Hines, South Mercer and East Jones Streets.

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The eastern end formed a dogleg dividing the block bounded by Goldsboro, Hines, Spring and Jones Streets.

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Sunshine Alley is long gone, but its path is easily followed in the driveway of the Family Dollar store at Hines and Goldsboro, the driveway of Barrett’s Printing House (the white-roofed structure below standing with the former footprint of Smith & Leggett) and the cut-through that continues past Barrett’s to Douglas Street (formerly Spring).

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  • Walnut Alley

Only a block long, Walnut Alley ran parallel to South Spring (Douglas) and South Lodge Streets between East Walnut and East Banks Streets. The 1922 Sanborn fire insurance map depicts a small “colored church” on Spring.

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That church is now Saint Rose Church of Christ, and the alley is Walnut Lane.

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Current maps courtesy of Google Maps.

Negro ministers recruit colored workers.

To address the acute labor shortage created by World War II, the Wilson Colored Ministerial Association came to the aid of tobacco factories and volunteered to recruit workers. “Three meetings of the colored ministers have already been held at the Darden funeral home, and colored church workers are making a house to house canvass for workers as a result of this meeting.”

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 August 1944.

Centre Brick auction.

Per Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina, this photograph depicts a tobacco auction at Centre Brick Warehouse in the 1920s. Several African-American farmers or warehouse workers can be seen standing behind the tobacconists who owned and operated the warehouse.

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Looping.

In this undated photograph, probably taken in the 1930s or ’40s, shows children and adults — four African-American — looping, or tying green tobacco leaves to sticks for drying.

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, reprinted in Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina (2007).