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.
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.
African-American women made up a sizeable percentage of seasonal workers who found employment in Wilson’s tobacco factories. This image, taken in the 1940s, shows women feeding tobacco bundles into a redrying machine at the James I. Miller Tobacco Company plant on Tarboro Street.
Photo courtesy of the archives of the James I. Miller Tobacco Company, reprinted in Keith Barnes’ The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market: A Pictorial History of Tobacco in Wilson, North Carolina (2007).
As noted in NCPedia.org, “[h]istorian David Cecelski wrote a popular oral history series called “Listening to History” for the Raleigh News & Observer from 1998 to 2008. With the support of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cecelski traveled across the state listening to, recording and preserving stories that spoke to the state’s history throughout the 20th century. ‘Listening to History’ appeared monthly in the newspaper’s ‘Sunday Journal,’ a special section of the Sunday edition of the newspaper that focused on the state’s cultural life.”
In 2004, as part of his series, Dr. Cecelski interviewed Marvin Jones, who began working for the Export Leaf Tobacco Company in Wilson in 1946. An excerpt from that interview, in which Jones “recalled the strong, and sometimes irreverent, camaraderie that enlivened tobacco factory life and laid a foundation for” the historic tobacco workers’ labor movement, is found here.
Marvin Jones died ten years after his “Listening to History” interview. Per his obituary:
“Mr. Marvin Jones, age 90, of 1020 SE Hines Street, Wilson, NC died Sunday, June 1, 2014 at his residence. Funeral arrangements are scheduled for Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 1:00 pm at Tabernacle of Prayer, 1601 Lane Street, SE, Wilson, North Carolina.
“Mr. Jones was preceded in death by: his wife, Johnnie Mae Brevard Jones; his parents, Rufus Haney and Gladys Jones Barnes; two sons, Bobby Julian Batts, Sr. and Tony Lewis; six sisters, Jessie Haney Locus, Thelma Roundtree, Annie Mae Barnes, Bessie Lee Davis, Rosa Barnes and Louise B. Johnson; four brothers, Rufus Haney, Jr., Joe Bonnie Haney, Issac Barnes and Jasper Barnes.
“He leaves cherished memories to one son, Walter Jones Jr. of the home; three daughters, Evelyn Wade (Donald) of the home, Gale Artis (James) of Wilson and Gwendolyn Fisher of Wilson; twelve grandchildren; thirty-one great grandchildren and nineteen great-great-grandchildren; one sister, Louise Reynolds of Philadelphia, PA; one sister-in-law, Ruth Barnes of Wilson; two special care givers, his great granddaughter, Tamara Richardson and Hattie Batts; and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, other relatives and friends.
“A public viewing will be held on Friday, June 6, 2014 from 3:00 pm until 8:00 pm with the family receiving friends from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm at Stevens Funeral Home, 1820 Martin Luther King Jr., Parkway, Wilson, North Carolina.”
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: in Happy Hill, road construction laborer Jesse Barnes, 41; wife Gladys A., 38; and children Marvin J., 16, Mary, 18, Rosa, 15, Isaac, 11, Bessie, 10, and Jasper Lee, 7.
In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 912 East Vance Street, South Carolina-born tobacco factory cooper Rufus Haney, 38, and children Rufus Jr., 13, and Jiosa Lee, 10, and mother Minder, 74.
In 1942, Marvin Jones registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 18 November 1923 in Wilson; resided at 612 Wiggins Street; his contact was Mrs. Julia Barnes, Wainright [sic], Wilson; and he worked for N.L. Baker, Route 1, Wilson.
In the 1900 census of Hall township, Sampson County: farmer Joseph Bryant, 51; wife Carrie, 37; and children Louiza, 11, Elijah, 8, Isham, 6, Minnie, 5, Josiah, 5, and John, 7 months.
In the 1916 Wilson city directory: Isham Bryant, lab, h S Reid nr Robinson.
Isham Bryant registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 14 March 1893 near Clinton, North Carolina; resided at 213 Reid Street, Wilson; worked as a laborer for Will Coley, contractor; and was married with two children.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 596 Wainwright Street, tobacco factory laborer Isham Bryant, 27; wife Rossie, 21; and children Beatrice, 5, Bertha, 4, and Inez, 1.
In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 805 Roberson Street, Isom Bryant, 37, factory laborer; wife Rossie, 32, public school maid; and daughters Beatrice, 15, Bertha, 14, and Inez, 11.
On 18 February 1931, Beatrice C. Bryant, 17, daughter of Isham and Rossie Bryant, married Jos. F. Haskins, 19, son of James Haskins and Martha Pitt, in Wilson. Rev. J.T. Douglas of Calvary Presbyterian Church performed the service at Isham Bryant’s house with Judge Mitchell and the Bryants as witnesses.
In the 1940 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Isham Bryant, 49, machinist at tobacco factory; wife Rossie, 43; daughter Inez, 22, tobacco factory laborer; and granddaughter Bobbie Haskins, 8.
Isham Bryant died 6 September 1961 at 915 East Nash Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he lived at 414 North Vick Street; worked as a mechanic for Wilson Tobacco Company; was born 14 March 1894 in Sampson County to Joe Bryant and Carrie Hobbs; and was married to Roxie Bryant.
Rossie Bryant died 22 July 1984 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 1897 in Sampson County to Charlie Underwood and Rosetta Boykins; resided at 705 Edwards Street; and had worked as a tobacco factory hanger.
Rossie Underwood Bryant.
Photographs courtesy of Ancestry.com user michaelj379.
Founded in 1869, the Knights of Labor was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the late 19th century. The Knights promoted the eight-hour day and supported efforts to end child and convict labor. After a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s — swelling to nearly 800,000 — the group quickly lost members after the Haymarket riot. The Knights of Labor had a mixed history of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, eventually accepting women and African-Americans as members and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies, but tolerating the segregated assemblies in the South and strongly supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act.
On the basis of local newspaper coverage, the Knights of Labor seem to have been most active in Wilson County about 1888. Though its strength was past peak elsewhere by that time, the organization boasted 100 locals in North Carolina, the most of any Southern state.
Wilson Advance, 21 June 1888.
Jane Bynum of Wilson was initiated into a Knights of Labor local in Wilson in the 1880s.
Dues cards for Jane Bynum, a member of Wilson’s Knights of Labor lodge.
Many decades later, tobacco factory workers ushered into Wilson County a new era of labor organizing.
A North Carolina Highway Historical Marker in 18 miles north in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, reads: “Black leaf house workers in eastern N.C. unionized in 1946. First pro-union vote, at tobacco factory 1 block W., precursor to civil rights movement.”
Per the marker program’s essay: “In the summer of 1946, nearly 10,000 tobacco “leaf house” workers in eastern North Carolina, primarily African American women, joined unions in a mass organizing campaign (tagged ‘Operation Dixie’) headed by the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU-AFL) and the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA-CIO). From South Boston, Virginia, to Lumberton, North Carolina, workers secured union contracts in nearly thirty tobacco leaf houses.”
“The labor protest and organization campaign followed the 1943 effort that took place at R.J. Reynolds factories in Winston-Salem. The 1946 campaign differed in that it not only focused on labor rights, but also resulted in important strides in civil rights for African Americans. Efforts were made by the union organizers to increase black voter registration and to instigate political action against segregation within the leaf houses. Nearly ten years before the Montgomery bus boycott, black workers in eastern North Carolina worked for civil rights through ‘unionism.’ As one participant recorded, ‘We’re not just an organizing campaign, we’re a social revolution.’ And another, ‘It wasn’t just wages we wanted, but freedom.’
“While the movement began with the TWIU-AFL organizing locals and securing contracts in six leaf houses in Wilson and one in Rocky Mount in the summer of 1946, the first official union election, which was won by the FTA-CIO in September 1946, took place at China American Tobacco Company in Rocky Mount. After that election the FTA-CIO won 22 of 24 elections in North Carolina. The consequence was that the organizers established a significant union presence in eastern North Carolina leaf houses, benefitting the tobacco workers of the area. Today only two union locals remain.”
One is in Wilson.
An early National Labor Relations Board decision, reported at 73 NLRB 207 (1947), offers a peek at the earliest days of this movement. Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union filed a petition to represent a unit of employees at a Liggett & Myers stemmery in Wilson. TWIU intervened, claiming to have beat FTA to the punch by securing voluntary recognition of its bargaining representative status a few weeks prior to FTA’s petition. The Board upheld the hearing officer’s rulings in the matter and dismissed FTA’s petition.
Per the decision: “The Wilson, North Carolina, plant, the only plant involved in this proceeding, is a subsidiary of the Durham, North Carolina, plant, which is the main factory of the Employer. The Wilson plant receives tobacco from various markets in North Carolina and engages in a process called redrying and tobacco stemming. A portion of the tobacco is stored in Wilson, and the remainder in Durham. All of the tobacco processed by the Wilson plant ultimately reaches the Durham plant, where it is manufactured into cigarettes and pipe tobacco and shipped throughout the United States. The Wilson plant normally operates from 3 to 4 months a year, August to November, and processes from 8 to 12 million pounds of tobacco per season at an estimated value of $5,500,000. In 1946, during the off season, the plant employed 12 employees, and at its peak employed 217 employees.”
On 19 August 1946, when three of the facility’s five departments were operating, Liggett and TWIU conducted an informal card check that revealed that TWIU represented a majority of 123 employees then employed at Wilson. The same day, they entered into a one-year contract. The next day, all five departments were up and operated by the same 123 employees. FTA asserted that on 16 August 1946 it had written a letter to Liggett claiming to represent a majority of its employees. There was no evidence that the letter was mailed, and Liggett denied receipt. On 21 August, FTA sent Liggett a letter that made no claims of representation and did not reference the August 19 letter. On August 29, FTA sent another letter demanding recognition and claiming majority representation, and the Union filed a petition on September 3, at which time the Employer had reached its peak 217 employees. TWIU claimed its contract barred FTA’s claim, and the Board agreed.
BCTGM Local 270-T, 121 South Pettigrew Street, Wilson.
TWIU merged with Bakery & Confectionary Workers International Union in 1978 to form Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers International Union. For the Union’s history in its own words, see here. For more on the Union’s involvement in early civil rights efforts in Wilson, see Charles W. McKinney’s Greater Freedoms: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (2010).
Copies of union cards courtesy of Deborah Moore Vles; photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2016.