tobacco culture

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. 

Sunshine Alley.

As noted in the earlier “Lost Neighborhoods” posts, downtown Wilson was once shot through with narrow alleys packed with the tiny double-shotgun dwellings of African-American tobacco workers. The whole of Sunshine Alley ran one and a half blocks between Tarboro and Mercer Streets, in the shadow of Liggett & Meyers’ tobacco warehouse and within a block of Planter’s Warehouse, Banner, Monk-Adams, Farmers, and Watson Warehouses. The neighborhood survived a 1924 fire, but by the end of 1928 it was gone — obliterated to make way for the massive Smith’s Warehouses A and B. (You can read a whole page about Smith’s in the nomination report for the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse Historic District, but you’ll find no mention of Sunshine Alley.)

Here’s Smith’s in the 1940 aerial of Wilson, occupying the entire block bounded by East Jones, South Goldsboro, Hines, and Mercer Streets.

Today there’s nothing in this block but a Family Dollar store. Stand at the mouth of its driveway at Goldsboro Street. Look west:

Then east:

This was Sunshine Alley.

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, September 2020.

Where we worked: tobacco barn.

Over the last couple of decades, the once ubiquitous tobacco barn has largely disappeared from the rural Wilson County landscape. I was surprised to find this one, then, completely enclosed in a grove of trees near a Springhill township cemetery, but otherwise in remarkably good condition.

After tying freshly picked tobacco leaves to wooden sticks with twine, workers hung the sticks from racks inside the barn to be dried, or “cured,” in the heat delivered via flue from an external fire box. The grueling work of barning season ended around this time of year.

I invite anyone knowledgeable to estimate the age of this barn. Thank you!

Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, July 2019.

Artis’ tobacco stick business.

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 7.37.16 PM.png

Wilson Daily Times, 11 November 1919.

John T.M. Artis announced his tobacco stick business in the Daily Times in November 1919.  Tobacco sticks were thin cuts of wood used to hang tobacco leaves from barn rafters for drying.

——

On 24 February 1903, J.T. Artis, 21, of Wilson, son of Ben and Ferabee Artis, married Mattie Thomas, 20, of Gardners township, daughter of Peter and Margaret Thomas. Sidney Wheeler applied for the license, and Primitive Baptist minister Jonah Williams performed the ceremony in the presence of Willis P. Evans, John Barnes and Henry Melton. E.L. Reid witnessed Williams sign an X.

John T. M. Artis registered for the World War I draft in Wilson in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 17 March 1880; lived on Route 5, Wilson; farmer for Petter Thomas; nearest relative, Simon Barnes.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer John Artis, 38; wife Mattie, 40; sister Hattie Sims, 40; mother Fariby Artis, 82; grandmother Rosa Barnes, 94; and nephew James Artis, 12.

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Artis Jno T (c; Mattie) lab h 1114 Queen

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1114 Queen, rented for $9/month, Morison Artis, 63, and wife Mattie, 65, tobacco factory stemmer.

Mattie Artis died 21 October 1962 at Mercy Hospital in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 82 years old; was born in Wilson County to Peter Thomas and Maggie Barnes; was married to J. Marshall Artis; and was buried in Barnes cemetery.

John Marshall Artis died 6 January 1967 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, je was born 17 March 1883 in Wilson County to unknown parents; lived at 1109 Washington Street; was married to Odessa R. Artis; and had worked as a laborer.

 

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 neighborhoods, no. 3.

As illustrated in earlier “Lost Neighborhoods” 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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 7.01.41 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 7.01.08 PM.png

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 within the former footprint of Smith & Leggett) and the cut-through that continues past Barrett’s to Douglas Street (formerly Spring).

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 7.21.12 PM.png

  • 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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 9.33.04 PM.png

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

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 9.38.12 PM.png

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.”

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 8.57.19 PM.png

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 8.58.16 PM.png

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 8.58.36 PM.png

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.

IMG_3722.jpg