In September 1934 a series of events in Durham, North Carolina appeared to herald the birth of a new class. On Labor Day, a crowd gathered at the graveside of a Durham worker killed during a 1931 hosiery strike in Philadelphia, and its members dedicated themselves to achieving victory in a forthcoming confrontation with textile manufacturers. A speaker proclaimed, “More than half a million workers in the textile industry are halting work to achieve those aims for which Clem Norwood laid down his life.” After that solemn moment, workers’ gatherings took on the gaiety of a festival.
A local journalist, attending a Labor Day picnic in a Durham park, summed up the mood of the crowd: “Not only do they apparently believe they are battling for a righteous cause, but they boisterously display a keen spirit of unionism—a spirit which they feel sure will triumph.” As he circulated among the people, he discovered that women sometimes spoke more forcibly in support of the labor action than men. Pearl Weaver told him, “We certainly are in favor of the strike and you can bet your life we will serve in the picket lines. I can’t be there on Tuesday morning because I must take care of our ten children, but my husband will. And then I will shift with him.” Mr. Weaver grunted his assent. The next day women joined with men as 5,200 textile workers, “grave in their intentions, remained in their homes or formed impregnable picket lines.” They shared in the joking and the casual determination that “paralyzed seven local mills.” Reporters detected only one unhappy note in the general excitement: tears came to the eyes of one mill official denied entrance to his office by “his employees, now pickets.” Surely the birth of a class, an event predicted and feared by many observers, had taken place that September in Durham.
There were other signs that the vision of harmonious relations between capital and labor fashioned by New South propagandists had turned upside down. Local tobacco workers, black and white, voted financial support for the textile strikers. When the strike ended three weeks later, the workers were still unified. Shouts of “Victory is ours” and songs of rejoicing rang through Durham streets as workers celebrated in spontaneous dancing and parades.1 Even after the manufacturers refused to negotiate with their returning employees, workers continued to agitate, protest, organize, and strike. In spring 1939, black and white workers at Liggett and Myers struck the company and won their demands for a preferential shop. A strike at Erwin Mills in March 1940 idled many workers for nearly a year but failed to weaken their resolve. Finally, in 1941, the largest textile mill in Durham, one of the leading mills in the South, grudgingly signed its first contract with its workers. A working class, divided into antagonistic racial communities, had somehow managed to articulate and defend its collective interests. Durham workers had forged a unity that apparently transcended racial and gender lines.
But the unity was flawed. One textile worker believed that God had sanctioned her participation in the 1940 strike; another dreamed that only those who repudiated the union would be saved from the lions’ den. Many black women took no part in the L and M strike because their local was too weak to strike. A black woman who took part unwillingly summed up her impression: “Oneness,” she called it, with a bitter twist. The bitterness is understandable. After marching on the picket line, workers returned to segregated communities; women went home to domestic chores; employers retained the right to assign jobs and pay wages based on a worker’s race and sex. Nevertheless, the entrance of women into a common arena with men was as shattering to the cherished myths of the South as was cooperation across racial lines. The distance separating the races and the sexes had begun to shrink.
The story of the “New South” needs to be told through the experiences of the women who contributed to the region’s wealth while remaining poor themselves. Both the women who picketed and the women who rejected the unions were the heirs to generations who worked in the Carolina Piedmont. Their attitudes grew out of the history of women’s life and work. Black and white female hands provided labor for farms and mills and factories. They also performed the paid and unpaid tasks that fed, cleansed, clothed, and nursed other workers, and bore and nurtured the children who would become the next generation of workers. By the end of the 1930s, women had evolved collective forms of action rooted in their common position as industrial workers, although some women refused to participate. Yet these “sisters under their skins” never fully realized their kinship in a society where skin color was charged with fateful significance and employers possessed great power.2 Their struggles against great odds to achieve common goals is an essential part of the history of the New South.3
Durham, North Carolina, is a particularly suitable area for study. The tobacco industry, which gave birth to Durham in the 1860s, and the textile industry, which followed in the 1880s and 1890s, employed large numbers of women throughout the sixty-year period between 1880 and 1940. The tobacco industry’s policy of including black women in its labor force (in contrast to their exclusion from textile mills and their near exclusion from the hosiery industry) makes Durham one of the few cities where black and white women industrial workers can be compared. It becomes easier to reveal how different forms of labor control, race and gender discrimination, and manufacturing methods affected women workers. In addition, these events are close enough in time that we can recapture the women’s experiences in their own words.
The process that brought women into the factories had roots both in the tobacco-growing areas surrounding Durham and in the industrializing process itself. The expanding cash-crop economy, with its rising levels of tenancy, sharecropping, and indebtedness, weakened traditional ties to the land. Women, the most expendable members of the agricultural population, were attracted to nearby Durham by the demand for their labor. There they evolved into industrial workers in a complex procedure that reconstructed racial, gender, and class relationships within the factory, the household, and the surrounding community. Unions faced not only the power of the males who dominated the political economy but also an internally divided work force. It was no easy task.
▪ The research reported in this book was inspired by E. P. Thompson’s study of English working-class culture and consciousness. As Thompson describes it, “Class happens when some men, as the result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”4 Thompson’s analysis, however, dealt with a racially homogeneous England. A historian of American southern workers must assess the impact of racial differences.5 Indeed, race usually replaced class in the collective consciousness of southern workers. Moreover, a student of women’s lives cannot assume a congruence of interests between men and women in any society whose gender relationships were based on female subordination within the family and the denial of female power in the public realm.6
When gender and race are added to Thompson’s description of class consciousness, the process of attaining group identification becomes a complex six-sided negotiation among unequal partners in each of three major relationships. In the New South, this process of group discovery took place within a community whose old patterns of social conduct were being eroded by emancipation, the expanding cash-crop economy, industrial production, and urbanization. Although blacks and whites were being forced into similar economic classes by the rapid changes, few individuals saw themselves as linked by such a novel and abstract notion as class. Distinctions of sex and color were much more obvious and time-honored. Threatened by forces of disorder beyond their control, whites were inclined to reassert control over former slaves, who might otherwise have competed with them for scarce resources. Men who had formerly been the heads of a patriarchal yeoman economy—or who had never attained authority over family members—were insistent on preserving female subordination. Further, white fears of racial intermingling tended to forestall any recognition of mutual interests with blacks as workers.7 In the following analysis, I will explore the appeals for racial, gender, and class solidarity as competing forms of group and self discovery in a society where many felt victimized by forces outside their control.
▪ This study draws on three major sources to illuminate the female experience in Durham: oral history, documents, and census data as interpreted by quantitative analysis. Large areas of women’s lives, however, remain irretrievable by these tools. It is particularly difficult to recapture the texture of family life. Domestic routines were little recorded in the documents of the time, and women did not often discuss daily events in formal interviews. Perhaps encounters between two strangers separated by race, class, age, and sometimes gender were not likely settings for revelations about private lives.8 For whatever reason, only a partial account of women’s lives emerges in this study, one heavily slanted toward work in the factory and activities in public.
The study addresses concerns usually treated in several discrete areas of scholarship. In the field of labor history, it describes the making and unmaking of an industrial working class in a way that diverges in some particulars from other case studies.9 It explores the effects on people who were uprooted from the land, but it discovers no harmonious peasant or yeoman culture disrupted by external forces; instead, it traces the tangled roots of racial, class, and gender domination in both country and city.10 It reveals the inadequacies of a class-based strategy when social identities were powerfully shaped by gender and race, yet it recognizes the centrality of class conflicts in shaping the social order. This approach helps to explain the obstacles that hindered the agrarian and labor movements in the South.11 In addition, in placing black and white women at the center of the analysis, the study departs from a historiographical tradition that too often took only the perspective of white or black males.12 It thus contributes to the ongoing effort to make women’s experience part of history.13 Seeing women as active rather than passive brings scholarly attention to the issue of gender, and southern history can only benefit from this invigorating encounter.
Sisterhood Denied, as its title suggests, rebukes facile claims about the sisterhood of all women, yet the phrase also suggests the hope that infuses that feminist dream. The title, like the history that follows, should not avoid ambiguity. It affirms women’s resistance but also describes their acceptance of subordination. A new society, a more inclusive view of community and sisterhood transcending racial boundaries, might have emerged in Durham. A “redemptive community” might have rendered the baggage of white supremacy obsolete.14 Women might have created a life unbounded by inherited suspicion, pride, and fear. The title, however, states that this did not happen. Even so, women’s involvement in the labor movement helped to breach some of the barriers that kept women apart. Their story is one of victory as well as defeat.