THE HUMAN HARVEST
As the agricultural crisis deepened, increasing numbers of migrants poured out of the countryside. The intensity and the direction of the flow depended on the prices paid for tobacco and cotton, the cost of land, the level of indebtedness among farmers, and the economic opportunities available. At times, employers influenced the migrants: during labor shortages, they actively solicited particular types of workers. The attractiveness of rural life vis à vis town life and industrial employment also played a role in determining who would migrate and who would remain. Because agriculture rewarded female labor less than male, young women were more likely to move into town. Among men, migration was concentrated among those over twenty, whose parents could no longer command their labor, and under forty. More blacks migrated than whites, a reflection of blacks’ more limited access to resources. Also, the destinations of black males and black females varied: women migrated to cities like Durham that welcomed their labor; men traveled longer distances in search of work (see Tables 8 and 9).1 The earliest waves of migration included the most vulnerable members of rural society: blacks of both sexes and white women. The labor demands of the First World War and the restriction on foreign immigration intensified the pull off the land. Durham’s population grew as a result of this differential migration; out in the countryside, males outnumbered females among those who remained.2
Tracing the intricate connections between individual journeys and urbanization requires a creative understanding of data, because migration, particularly short-range migration within a single state, has rarely been well-documented.3 A few results are clear: between 1890 and 1930, Durham became a city where women, particularly black women, outnumbered men (see Table 9). When we turn to the issues that determined migration, the difficulties are compounded by the failure of most demographers and census takers to deal adequately with class, family structure, women’s marital status, and other influential factors. Except for a few relatively systematic surveys, we must depend on the laments of planters for departed farm laborers, the biographies of migrants, and the histories of successful migrants who became leading businessmen. Entrepreneurs like Washington Duke, Julian S. Carr, John Merrick, and C. C. Spaulding came to Durham equipped with capital, connections, and business expertise. In contrast to less celebrated migrants, they did not come from the fields to the factory. They had already acquired the experience that prepared them to set up enterprises in the city where “the wheels begin to turn, the smoke rolls in massive clouds from every stack and the sweet assuring music of busy machinery is heard.”4 Their success pulled other migrants into Durham. The Duke and Carr companies attracted a continuing stream of black labor. Mechanization in the 1880s induced the migration of white men and women to operate the machines. New industries like textiles and hosiery intensified the demand, shifting from a predominantly female and child labor force to a family labor system by the early twentieth century. Until the end of the 1930s, when the mechanization of the stemmeries lessened the demand for labor, Durham’s factories drew a steady stream of recruits from the rural Piedmont.
Percentage of Those Leaving Home Who Migrated to Urban Areas, by Race and Sex of Migrant*
*N = 1,999 from five rural areas in North Carolina.
SOURCE: C. Horace Hamilton, “Recent Changes in the Social and Economic Status of Farm Families in North Carolina,” North Carolina Agricultural Extension Station Bulletin no. 309, May 1937, p. 128.
Sex Ratios* for Durham by Race, 1890–1930
*A sex ratio is derived by dividing the total number of males in a population by the total number of females. When females outnumber males, the sex ratio is less than one.
SOURCE: 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th Censuses of the United States, Population, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, published volumes of the U.S. Bureau of the Census (see Appendix for publication information).
Leaving agricultural for industrial occupations was the major economic motivation for the move to Durham. Forty-five out of forty-eight stable Durham households had migrated between 1880 and 1900 (see Map 2). Almost all had come from tobacco or cotton-growing areas relatively near to Durham. In 1880, forty of these households had engaged in farming; by 1900, only five included a member designated as a farmer. By the last year of the nineteenth century, 41 percent of the household members then living in Durham were employed in textiles, 16 percent worked in the tobacco industry, and another 9 percent, who were listed as laborers, may have worked in the same industry. The other 31 percent of the employed household members filled occupations in the building trades, assorted industries, and retail. These new Durham residents symbolized the transformation of a rural population into an urban workforce.
Although it is clear that the city offered single women greater opportunities than were available in the rural Piedmont, the available data demonstrate that most women migrated as part of a family. A comparison of female-headed households suggests that black female-headed households were disproportionately likely to migrate, while white female-headed households could more readily stay on the land (see Tables 6 and 10). The differences in available resources probably accounted for the contrasting strategies of these households. Such racially-distinct migratory strategies helped to engender a markedly unbalanced sex ratio for black Durhamites. Whether white or black, most female residents of Durham aged fourteen or older in 1880 or 1900 were living in households headed by their husbands or their parents (see Table 11). Of the less than 15 percent living with non-related household heads, 5 to 8 percent were living with relatives. A still smaller group, primarily black women, lived as servants in the homes of their employers. Although women were more likely to migrate and live outside kin-based households in the twentieth century, such women remained a distinct minority. A survey of young white “rural girls” working in Durham in the mid-1920s disclosed that 52 percent were living with their parents, 13.5 percent were living with other relatives, and 33 percent were boarders.5 Oral history interviews with thirty-three women who came to Durham between 1900 and 1934 showed that 68 percent—including all of the black women—had accompanied other family members in search of economic opportunity. Although the remaining women had traveled alone, they generally lived in Durham with relatives. While households may have taken on a more elastic shape in order to facilitate migration, the data suggest that women remained dependent on kinshp networks to provide emotional support and access to resources unavailable to the solitary female wage-earner.
Percentages of Female-Headed Households in Rural,* Urban, and Suburban Durham Areas, 1880–1900
*Rural samples taken from Person, Granville, and Orange/Durham Counties for 1880 and 1900. Figures for Durham County for 1880 from those parts of Orange/Wake County that became Durham in 1881.
†Sample of industrial households in suburbs of Durham.
SOURCE: 10th and 12th Censuses of Population (manuscript) Population Schedules for 1880 and 1900, samples for counties indicated, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques).
A major motivation for moving to Durham was the promise of work for women. Families with daughters were more likely to come than were families with sons. Durham either attracted or retained more young women than men between the ages of fifteen and thirty, whereas the sex ratios for younger and older people were more nearly equal. The history of Wilma Couch illustrates the interdependence between daughters and the family economy. Born in Alamance County, Wilma Mayfield originally moved to the town of Graham in the late nineteenth century because her injured father could no longer farm and her brothers were too young. The family lived on the earnings of the four Mayfield daughters until the sons grew strong enough to plow. The father, mother, and sons returned to the land while the daughters remained working in the textile mill at Graham until they married. When Wilma Couch was left a widow with four young children, she traveled to Durham to seek better-paying work. Unable to manage a boardinghouse successfully, she placed her two oldest children in the Methodist orphanage in Raleigh and took a job in a Durham tobacco factory to support herself and her youngest child. As her children reached eighteen, they returned to the Couch home in Durham. After Wilma Couch lost her job at the factory because of age, the daughters supported the family until the youngest son had left home. Finally, the Couch daughters married and set up their own households after two successive generations had served as the economic mainstays of the Mayfield and then the Couch households.6 Other families had similar histories.7
Relationships of Women and Girls Aged 14 and Older to Household Heads in Durham, 1880–1900
*1900 for households within boundaries of Durham city in 1900.
†1900 for households involved in industrial employment in suburbs of Durham.
SOURCE: 10th and 12th Censuses of Population (manuscript) Population Schedules for 1880 and 1900 for Durham and Suburbs, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques used).
Interviews with more than two hundred young women employed in Durham in the mid-1920s revealed the complex forces that impelled so many “rural girls” to come to town. They had journeyed an average of seven miles from their rural origins. Their reasons for leaving home included the narrow range of occupations open to women in rural areas, the endless domestic duties they described as a “cheerless routine,” and the stimulation and opportunity available in Durham. Almost 60 percent reported that they had come to find a job, 27.9 percent that their family had decided to stop farming, and 8 percent that a parent’s death had led to their decision. Della Thompson, who liked being “independent and free,” reported that her family had come to Durham because life was “pretty hard” in the country for a family with ten daughters. Delia Turner’s family of thirteen had moved when her father grew too old to operate a two-horse tenant farm. Julia Franklin, an operator in a Golden Belt bag factory, had accompanied her mother and younger siblings to Durham after the death of her father. Her mother found work in a mill; Julia, at fifteen, also went to work. Unlike Della Thompson, Julia regretted the move. She told the interviewer that in “the country a girl can be herself and feel free” and have a “sense of place in the world.” Family necessity had forced her to accept a situation that she could not change.8 Whether or not young women relished the new urban environment, they joined more than 200,000 North Carolinians who moved from farm to town in the 1920s.9
Evidence for the 1930s suggests that migration was still an important although decreasing source of labor for Durham’s industries. A study of female migration in the latter half of the decade discovered that nearly half of those studied had been born in Durham County or nearby. Almost 87 percent of the white women and 88.5 percent of the black women had come from farming areas, but the distances traveled to Durham differed. More than half of white migrants came from counties near Durham, compared to 38.7 percent of black migrants. The remaining black women came from more distant points with 23 percent from out of state. The percentage of white women from outside the immediate area was 31.4 percent, and only 12.5 percent came from other states.10
The survey of Durham tobacco workers conducted by Charles S. Johnson in 1935 reported that employees in the industry were “overwhelmingly rural in origin” and had come primarily from North Carolina. The Johnson study, however, discovered that black women were less likely to conform to this pattern than were other racial and sexual groups. Although more than 60 percent of the black men, white women, and white men working for American Tobacco Company or for Liggett and Myers had come from rural North Carolina, slightly less than 44 percent of black women had originated there. Another 44 percent had grown up in urban areas, 14 percent in Durham itself. Although a slightly greater percentage of white women had originated in Durham, only an additional 7.3 percent had come from other cities. Like the study of female migrants, the Johnson survey reported that blacks traveled from more distant points to reach Durham than did their white counterparts (see Table 12).11
Origins of Durham Tobacco Workers, 1935
SOURCE: Charles S. Johnson, “The Tobacco Worker: A Study of Tobacco Factory Workers and Their Families,” 2 vols. (1935), Division of Review, Industrial Studies Section, NRA/NA, 2:387.
A current of migration ran in the other direction, but it is more difficult to measure. Many farmers had forsaken the land only temporarily, and, when prices for farm products began to rise, they returned to their traditional occupations. In 1918 the Mangums, a family whose members worked at American Tobacco and Golden Belt, “went out in the country and started farming” again as sharecroppers. They remained on the land until 1932, “the year nobody made nothing and Daddy lost everything we had.” Returning to Durham, the family took jobs at American Tobacco, Erwin Mills, and Golden Belt.12 Black workers often moved between country and city on a regular basis because their work in the stemmeries was tied to the “green season” when the tobacco leaf was newly harvested and needed to be rehandled, “redried,” packed in hogsheads, and aged.
When industrial workers began to acquire automobiles in the 1920s and 1930s, commuting between farm and factory became an option.13 A black female tobacco worker, married to a small tobacco farmer, hitched a ride to town with a neighbor because she didn’t own a car in the late 1930s.14 A white woman, interviewed in the late 1930s, shared a small farmhouse with two sons in southern Durham County; her four married children had already moved to live “in them little old, dingy factory houses over in Durham.” One of her remaining sons was already commuting to work at American Tobacco Company. He planned to move into Durham when he married because “the city has got its hands on me and I can’t get loose.”15 In this fashion, the automobile allowed some to replant themselves in the rural Piedmont, but most migration continued to flow toward the urban comforts of Durham.
▪ The testimony of migrants began to be recorded by the late 1870s. A Senate committee investigated the reasons for blacks’ leaving the land in 1879, and northern newspapers detailed the abuses perpetrated against black farmers by Democratic authorities. The New York Times noted, “White farmers seem to have been able to discover the point at which the laborer may be kept face to face with starvation . . . If he complains, he is turned adrift.”16 By the late 1880s, the plight of white migrants was attracting commentary. An Alamance farmer, giving one reason for the rural labor shortage, declared that the mill operatives in his county fared “much better than the farmers.”17 In Wake County, reported another farmer, many tenants had become “discouraged and gone to the towns, railroads, turpentine districts, etc.”18 A manager in a Durham tobacco factory placed the individual journeys in a broader context:
I think that we, as a state, are being transformed from an agricultural to a manufacturing people and the inequality of prices paid for the labor by the farmer and the manufacturer is causing his labor to leave the farm and crowd the manufacturing towns and cities with a surplus of labor that is appalling.19
About ten years later a white employee at Erwin Cotton Mills Company (Erwin Mills) in West Durham described the predicament of the “unsettled element” who were “moving into our cities and crowding into the factories.” T. A. Allen grieved over the fate of the “bold peasant,” driven by adversity into mills; there the formerly independent people were “no longer free men and women, but are considered as part of the machinery which they operate.”20 The leader of the first (unsuccessful) Durham textile strike, Allen symbolized the arrival of white men into industry in numbers.
Few black migrants appeared to share Allen’s nostalgia for the land, according to their former landlords and the migrants themselves. Writing early in the twentieth century, Piedmont farmers mourned the passing of the “old Negro” who had been “tolerably reliable,” whereas the “younger set . . . leave their parents and go to the public works or some town before they are sixteen years old.” W. S. Parker of Vance County blamed education for “ruining the negro as a farm laborer. The women work very well by the day but they are not certain.”21 A. M. Walker complained that white tenants or laborers were no substitute for the restless blacks because “nearly all white labor, especially female labor, is now employed by the factories.”22 An Oxford farmer denounced the unfair competition from the “North,” the “railroads and the sawmills” that paid “the negro” better wages than farmers could offer.23 Such commentators opposed education for blacks, believing that learning made them restless; they vigorously condemned “lazy” white men as well, for putting “their wives and children in the factory to work” rather than renting land from landlords like themselves.24
Pearl Barbee recalled her mother’s decision to make the change:
I heard my mother said one time that she worked on the farm and the last year . . . she didn’t clear anything and so . . . she just decided to leave the country . . . She just moved here and started working for white people, washing, cleaning, doing things like that. I went to work when I was at an early age at the factory.
The daughter approved: she preferred factory life to working in a “hot field all day.”25 Mrs. Hetty Love made the same decision when she realized that there was “nobody left to farm” after her marriage dissolved. In 1914 she arrived in Durham to find work at a tobacco stemmery.26 Indeed, “nearly a full tenth of the country people of Durham County quit their farms and moved to town” between 1900 and 1910.27 The low wages paid to farm labor, especially to black women, and the uncertain returns earned by tobacco and cotton growers could not compete with the appeal of the “labor agent” and the hope of an easier life in Durham.
The migrants came in a variety of ways and at different rates. In the early twentieth century, Bessie Taylor, then a young girl, arrived by train with her entire family in the Erwin Mills village in West Durham.28 About the same time, the first generation of the Jenks family entered a small rural mill at the falls of the Neuse in Wake County. Later, in the 1910s, two generations of Jenkses moved into West Durham and then to mills at Wake Forest and Raleigh.29 Luther Riley, a more permanent member of the West Durham mill village, remembered the company recruiters who induced his family to forsake its rural home in 1919:
See, the main reason these people were enticed to come to town was because of having a large family, with a large number of children, and the potential of workers from there. The same thing for the tobacco workers and the hosiery workers. Whether it was good or bad, I’m not going to stand in judgment. I think we have a lot to do with our destiny but there are a lot of things that we can’t do anything about.30
A few years later, Rose Weeks departed from the family farm in northern Durham County to seek adventure and work in Durham. Her sister soon followed.31 In the mid-1920s, the Macks began to arrive in Durham from rural South Carolina. Like other future tobacco workers, they sought greater opportunity and less racial and sexual harassment than they had faced further south.32 Almost ten years later, in 1934, the Jenks family returned to West Durham after Eldred Jenks learned that Erwin Mills was starting a second shift.33 From the outset, these and thousands of other individual acts merged into a collective transformation of rural folk into industrial workers.
▪ Capitalist entrepreneurs followed the same routes to Durham as their less successful contemporaries. With energy, capital, and luck, they created enormous wealth for themselves and (as they saw it) great benefit for other residents. Levi Branson, an admirer, described their role in the first business directory published for Durham in 1887:
First, they know the value of undeveloped labor, and they know how to develop it so as to build the city. They induce thousands of poor people, as well as the rich, to settle in the city. They are set to work and well paid, while superior business skill rapidly turns the product of this labor into cash.34
Julian S. Carr, Washington Duke and his sons, and William A. Erwin relished such praise of their achievements in exploiting the chief asset of the poverty-stricken South—its abundant, cheap labor.
They felt, moreover, that their achievements in setting rural folk to work deserved recognition. As their successors later testified, training an inexperienced labor force was difficult and frustrating. Kemp P. Lewis, a college-educated descendant of some of the first textile manufacturers in North Carolina, came to Durham in 1900 to assist W. A. Erwin in training a textile labor force in West Durham. Nine years later he complained that training “native help to do good work in our mills” was a “tedious” task.35 Julian S. Carr, Jr., wrote extensively on the obstacles to forming an efficient workforce from the black and white workers in the Durham Hosiery Mill chain. Black workers resisted “fixed hours of labor” and forced Carr to allow them to attend marriages, funerals, revivals, and the annual meetings of their churches. White workers, primarily “people who have been raised on small tenant farms,” according to Carr, “presented a different problem, just as difficult.” They displayed “strong sectional loyalty but no pride of craftsmanship . . . Too many of the general force were content to ‘get by.’”36 Creating a brand-name company product, “Durable Durham” hosiery, helped to solve the problem of motivating workers: loyalty to the product gave the rural workers a personal reason to develop industrial work habits. Although Lewis succeeded in disciplining the West Durham mill force, he did not claim final victory until the company’s Harnett County employees had also been brought to proper industrial work habits. With this finally achieved to his satisfaction, Lewis took credit in 1931 for the “wonderful civilizing influence” of Erwin Mills that had turned tenant farmers into “self-respecting independent” people attuned to the discipline of the industrial age.37 Indeed, the Dukes, the Carrs, Erwin, and Lewis had directed a process that manufactured not only tobacco goods and cotton cloth but also workers, the common products of the Piedmont soil.
Black entrepreneurs like John Merrick, Aaron M. Moore, William G. Pearson, James Shepard, Charles C. Spaulding, and their associates also traveled to Durham to pursue dreams of success. Having worked in the building and barbering trades in nearby Chapel Hill and Raleigh in the 1870s, Merrick moved to Durham at the request of the Dukes and Julian S. Carr and opened a barber shop in 1880. Eight years later, A. M. Moore followed Merrick and became the city’s first black physician. In 1894, C. C. Spaulding, like his uncle, Aaron Moore, came from a free black community in Columbus County to Durham to complete his education. These men, together with Pearson, Shepard, and three other partners, founded an insurance association that became the leading black business in Durham and the South.38 In addition to practicing their professions—law, medicine, and education—they invested in real estate, banking, stores, newspapers, and a short-lived experiment with a hosiery mill. Except in the unsuccessful attempt to enter manufacturing, the leading black businesses in Durham hired relatively few black workers. College-educated, middle-class blacks flocked to join the staff of North Carolina Mutual and its allied enterprises, but the vast majority of black workers in Durham were employed in white-owned concerns, primarily the tobacco factories that formed the city’s industrial core. Consequently, the black entrepreneurs who presided over the social and cultural life of Durham’s black community were not major factors in attracting migrants. Rather, the city’s sizeable black industrial working class provided these businessmen with their customers, their tenants, and their clients.39 These black capitalists “grew up with the exploitation of the New South,” tolerated by white leaders who could accommodate “black men” who “calculate and work.”40
Not surprisingly, the white capitalists of Durham reaped the major benefits of the social upheaval that they presided over. Industrialization undermined the independence of the farm population, offered farmers low prices for the crops that they produced, lured displaced farmers into mills and factories, transformed the rural refugees into industrial workers, and turned the products of their labor into profits. According to a historian who studied the relationship between country and city in a global context, a “displaced and formerly rural population moving and drifting towards the centres of a money economy . . . directed by interests very far from their own” was a world-wide phenomenon; cities grew by feeding on the countryside.41 The “interests” guiding the Piedmont version of this “great transformation” bore the names of a few successful migrants out of the thousands who marched toward Durham. The vast majority, predominately female, supplied the labor that the dominant few required.