CAPITALISTS AND PATRIARCHS
These younger men are truly modern business men. They have adopted the technique of modern business and are saturated with the psychology of the capitalist class. They work hard, not because of necessity but to expand their business and invade new fields . . . They endow charities and schools . . . Above all they want progress . . . The founders of these new enterprises grew up with the exploitation of the New South.1
In 1925, Franklin Frazier praised black members of the “new industrial and commercial classes in the South” who resembled their white counterparts in their devotion to productivity, morality, property, and hard work. In celebrating the achievements of the “transformed Negro,” Frazier ignored other members of the “new industrial and commercial classes.” His brief mention of “the exploitation of the New South” referred only vaguely to the men and women whose labor supplied the basic resource exploited by these “modern businessmen.” Eager to prove that black men could succeed on the same turf as white capitalists, Frazier evaded any discussion that might have called the victory into question.
A discussion of the people who were overlooked cannot be written by simply turning Frazier on his head. Two major classes were generated in the industrial process that gave birth to the city of Durham—the capitalists who controlled the lives of the majority and the workers whose labor produced the wealth. Before examining the transformation of rural migrants into industrial workers, we must scrutinize the powerful men who set them to work, persuaded them to accept their authority, and strove to eliminate political and ideological challenges to their power.
▪ The entrepreneurs who spawned a few crude factories along the railroad in the vicinity of Durham Station in the 1860s brought the village of Durham into existence. At first the town grew slowly. But in 1868 two tobacco peddlers, James R. Day and William T. Blackwell, arrived in the struggling settlement of fewer than three hundred people and entered into partnership with a local smoking tobacco manufacturer who employed ten workers. Three years later, Julian Shakespeare Carr, son of a prominent local merchant and landowner, took control of a share that his father had bought in the firm. The firm’s trademark was the Durham Bull; and at that time it employed “twelve or thirteen hands” making plug and smoking (predominantly pipe) tobacco.
Carr shrewdly built on the original investment made by his father. Technological and marketing innovations transformed the partnership from a local enterprise to a “household word from Maine to the Gulf and from the Atlantic to the Pacific slope.”2 By 1880, the firm’s initial capitalization had increased three thousand times, and its rate of profit had soared to 48 percent of its sales.3 Three years later, the company was reorganized as a corporation that still bore the name Blackwell Durham Tobacco Company, although Blackwell’s share had been purchased by Philadelphia investors. Shipping out almost five million pounds of Bull Durham brand smoking tobacco in 1884, the company employed “nearly 1,000 hands, 685 of whom are in the factory and 250 outside, engaged in manufacturing the various sizes of bags in which the tobacco is packed.”4 Meanwhile, the embryo village of 1865 had grown into a small city boasting five thousand people, “palatial buildings devoted to mercantile purposes, huge tobacco warehouses and numerous manufactories of that article that are unexcelled,” including “the largest factory in the world for the manufacture of smoking tobacco.”5 The Bull, whose steam-powered factory whistle could be heard for thirteen miles around Durham, had sired a city and an industry.
Carr’s chief rival, W. Duke and Sons, began as a small family-run enterprise on the Duke homestead north of Durham. Washington Duke, the nephew of one of the largest landowners in Orange County in the 1850s, had begun peddling tobacco after the Civil War. Successful at selling his own crop, he began to produce pipe tobacco for the retail market. He, his sons Brodie, Benjamin, and James, and his daughter Mary, assisted by black hired hands, processed the smoking tobacco, bagged it, and filled orders in a ramshackle log cabin on the farm. Brodie Duke ventured into Durham and, in 1874, the rest of the family followed, moving to a location near the railroad, where they built a steam-powered factory. The enterprise was then reorganized as a family firm employing a black labor force.6
In 1878, Garrard S. Watts, a successful tobacconist in Baltimore, secured an interest in the Duke company for his son, whom he had trained in the family business. The capital brought by George Watts to Durham increased the capitalization of the company, now called W. Duke, Sons and Company, to $70,000.7 The young Watts became the company’s secretary and treasurer, where his financial and commercial training served him well. Confronting a larger, better financed, more mechanized competitor in the smoking tobacco field, W. Duke, Sons and Company entered the 1880s with less than $100,000 invested in its plant and a small work force of forty men and twenty children.8 A modest success, the company seemed likely to remain a distant second to the Bull, who symbolized Durham’s rise to fame and prosperity.
But Carr’s slogan, “Let the buffalo gore the buffalo, and the pasture go to the strongest,” only fired the Dukes’ uncommon ambition. They decided to risk entering a newer branch of the tobacco industry, cigarette making.9 In 1881 the company enticed skilled cigarette rollers to move from New York City, then the center of the industry. The Carr firm responded by importing its own group of cigarette makers. The Duke company persisted.10 Dissatisfied with the slow pace of hand-rolling cigarettes, the relatively high labor costs, the difficulties in training additional workers in the skilled tasks, and the stubborn independence of the imported craftsmen, Duke installed James Bonsack’s invention, a cigarette-making machine.11 While the Duke and Bonsack mechanics tinkered with the balky machine, James B. Duke set up a factory in New York City, which was closer to a skilled and cheap labor supply, a large urban market, a national communications network, and sources of capital.12
When the Bonsack machine reached efficiency in the mid-1880s, Duke struck a bargain with the inventor. The company would install two Bonsack machines immediately and add other machines more slowly. In this way, Duke said, employees could be discharged gradually “to avoid all possible danger of doing injustice . . . and all risk of collision with labor organizations.”13 Foreshadowing his later exploits, Duke also played the Bonsack company against rival cigarette companies. He prohibited machine sales to the Blackwell firm, strongly advised against sales to the Kinney and Goodwin cigarette companies, but allowed the Ginter and Kimball cigarette manufacturers to purchase the “making” machines.14 Using the weapons that Carr had pioneered—mechanization, aggressive advertising, reorganization to make cheaper and more efficient use of labor, and an infusion of northern capital—the Duke firm forced its local competitor out of cigarette manufacturing by 1887.15
Having vanquished the local rival, James B. Duke confidently wrote to the Bonsack firm, “Nobody can compete with the five largest factories unless they are willing to invest one million in capital.” While the Carr firm maintained its superior position in the overall production of smoking (pipe) tobacco, the Dukes, led by the determined younger son, geared up to take on more distant competitors. The upstart firm launched a furious advertising war to force the four major companies to accept its leadership. During the late 1880s, the major cigarette firms were often compelled to spend more for advertising than they took in through sales.16 Pressured by the brash firm in Durham, Bonsack and the major cigarette companies began to discuss the possibilities of a “consolidated” cigarette industry in 1889.17 One year later, the American Tobacco Company (ATC) emerged. James B. Duke, the instigator, became its president.18
Firmly entrenched in cigarette manufacturing, the company moved to take over other branches of the industry in the mid-1890s. An alleged attempt to capture the Bull Durham Company in 1892 developed into a public controversy. Carr accused the ATC of seeking to persuade him to “enter a trust . . . for the oppression of the already sorely oppressed farmers of North Carolina.”19 Benjamin Duke, a director of the company, indignantly denied Carr’s version of the offer. According to Duke, Carr had asked the company to buy his firm and offered to remain as manager.20 Carr’s version of the affair may have been influenced by political ambition in a state whose farm population suffered from low tobacco prices. The controversy became moot in 1899, when the ATC bought the Bull Durham Company and took control of the (pipe) smoking tobacco section of the industry.21 Carr was thus banished from the local industry that he had dominated and control over Durham’s tobacco manufacturing moved north to the American Tobacco Company headquarters in New York City.
Workers and farmers found their lives increasingly shaped by decisions made in corporate offices outside Durham. When company officials decided that cigarettes could be made more profitably in New York, factory workers in Durham were consigned to less skilled and lower paying jobs.22 Industry employment, a major contributor to the Durham economy, dropped precipitously after the decision to move operations north; similarly, it rose after full-scale cigarette manufacturing returned to Durham after 1911 (see Table 13).
Within thirty-five years, the family labor arrangement at the Duke homestead had developed into a large bureaucratically-run factory system. After his departure in 1884, James B. Duke rarely returned to Durham. Benjamin Duke joined him in New York in 1901. Washington Duke, the last surviving link to Durham, died in 1905. As the company became more embroiled in corporate warfare, finance, and stock manipulations, Durham workers were steadily reduced to impersonal elements of production rather than people whose faces were known to those making the decisions that affected their lives. In his letter to the Bonsack company back in the mid-1880s, James B. Duke had expressed concern for “injustice” to workers. When the U.S. Industrial Commission questioned him about industry conditions in 1903, he seemed only vaguely aware of his employees. Asked about the proportion of female to male labor employed in his factories, he answered, “I do not know. In some factories there is more than there is in others. In the cigarette factories, for instance, where it is all light, easy work, there are, I suppose, more women than there are men.” His guess that ATC employed “15,000 or 20,000 or 30,000” workers betrayed his almost total lack of concern about the labor on which he had built his wealth.23
Composition of Durham Tobacco Manufacturing Workforce, 1890–1917
*Bull Durham is the nickname for the company that was originally Blackwell Durham Tobacco Company, then a subsidiary of the American Tobacco Company trust, and finally a branch of the new American Tobacco Company after dissolution of the trust in 1911.
†W. Duke and Sons became Liggett and Myers after dissolution of the American Tobacco Company trust in 1911.
SOURCES: North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics and North Carolina Department of Labor and Printing, Annual Reports, 1890, 1910, 1911, 1917, and Bull Durham statistics for 1917 from U.S. Children’s Bureau, Child Labor File, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the American Tobacco Company in 1911 on grounds that it illegally restrained competition, the decision did not free Durham from corporate control centered in New York. Nor did it alter the balance of power between tobacco capitalists and the workers in Durham’s factories. The court merely divided control between two successor companies, Liggett and Myers (L and M), which took over the W. Duke and Sons plants along with 27.8 percent of the total cigarette production in the United States, and the American Tobacco Company (ATC), which assumed control of the Blackwell Durham properties together with 37 percent of cigarette production. Critics objected to the dominant position assigned to the two companies, along with R. J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris, but the judges insisted that their plan “disintegrates the combination . . . without a wanton destruction of property.”24
Although Liggett and Myers, in contrast to American Tobacco, frequently hired Durham men as managers, the decisions made by Clinton Toms, W. D. Carmichael, and other Durham-bred executives were as profit oriented as those of James B. Duke. Cigarette production returned to Durham, but management reinvested the enormous profits in plants, machinery, and capital assets; workers did not share in the corporate gains.25 Between 1912 and 1923, ATC earned returns on net worth of 16.8 percent and L and M earned 32.2 percent; the companies paid their workers an average annual wage of $600.26 Productivity increased 120 percent between 1919 and 1931, but wages declined 30 percent. A worker who produced $37,526 worth of products in 1931 received about 2 percent of the value and the companies netted a 16 percent return. Wages declined another 15 percent over the next two years, but the “depression proof” industry’s profits remained at an impressive level.27
Durham workers thus shared only marginally in the benefits that accrued to the industrialists who owned the machines that they tended.28 Sustained by the demand for its relatively inexpensive products, the industry maintained its prices while most others slashed theirs. Reaping an additional bonanza from low prices for raw tobacco in the early 1930s, a company like American Tobacco earned 11.1 percent of its net sales while the average U.S. corporation earned only 3.8 percent during the years between 1929 and 1949. The two corporations dominating the Durham economy maintained their positions among the four leading cigarette companies, which together controlled nearly 80 percent of the total U.S. production and sustained their pattern of growth, concentration, and high profits into the 1940s and beyond.29
▪ As the relentless pressures of the cash crop economy forced large numbers of unemployed people into Durham, tobacco company officials could take their choice from among those competing for jobs. With separate labor markets not only for blacks and whites but for men and women as well, employers could mold their workforce through the recruitment process itself.30 The tenets of white supremacy, which forbade employing blacks and whites on the same jobs at the same wage levels, worked to the advantage of the tobacco industry. Employers hired black women and men to perform the tasks that their ancestors had performed in an industrial tradition that harkened back to the origins of slavery.31 Black women, the most likely group to migrate off the land, formed a growing proportion of the industrial labor force because they were hired in the most labor-intensive part of the productive processing—stemming and processing the leaf to prepare it for the mechanized parts of the enterprise. Children or younger brothers and sisters often assisted them, although only the adult women appeared on the company payrolls.32 The companies thus reaped profits by hiring the largest proportion of their work force from the group that—thanks to the combined effects of racial and gender discrimination—could be paid the lowest wages.
Black men, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the labor force under slavery and its aftermath, continued to carry the heavy hogsheads of tobacco, make the barrels, and press and shape the leaf. They also labored in the hottest parts of the process, where the leaf was heated to reduce its moisture content and where the syrups and flavorings were prepared to make the tobacco more appealing to smokers. Hiring black men to work in “bull gangs,” the companies adhered to antebellum customs while exploiting a source of cheap local labor.33 White women, who were hired to operate most of the machines in the factories, could be paid lower wages than white men.34 These policies translated into profits for the company and satisfaction among the white employees, who saw their interests advanced by the subordination of their fellow employees.35
With the enormous capital commanded by a highly concentrated industry like cigarette manufacturing, Durham tobacco factories installed new machinery as soon as prototypes were invented. As the industry moved to the South after the court-ordered dissolution of the American Tobacco Company, the companies constructed more modern plants. The major growth in employment occurred in the leaf departments, where black women continued to prepare the tobacco leaf by hand, but that increase did not alter the drastic impact of mechanization on employment patterns. In 1931, 20,000 workers produced twice as many cigarettes as 24,000 workers had produced in 1919 at wages that averaged about $120 less per year.36 The “extended labor system,” fueled by a sophisticated incentive plan for foremen and supervisors, was an accomplished fact in the tobacco industry.
These trends intensified in the 1930s as the tobacco companies took advantage of the crisis that had devastated other industries. Still prospering in the midst of the Depression, managers continued to invest in technological innovations that speeded production. Foremen stepped up pressure on employees, warning them that others would take their places if they objected to management demands. Employees judged careless or negligent were sent home for a week or two without pay. Unless a worker had assiduously cultivated a supervisor, no allowances were made for family illness or personal problems. Riding high on the crest of hard times, management saw no need to cultivate company loyalty among a work force it believed could be easily replaced.
From the beginning, tobacco profits were the “power that created, fostered and . . . dominate [d] all other interests” in Durham.37 The Dukes, the Carrs, and their associates reinvested their gains in textile, hosiery, and bag mills that rose on Durham’s eastern and western flanks. Driven by the same motive that led James B. Duke to New York City in the early 1880s (“the determination on riches in his heart”), Durham’s industrial entrepreneurs dispensed only a small portion of their proceeds to philanthropic enterprises during their active years.38 Already by 1884, Carr had begun investing in the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company to produce cloth for the tobacco bags in which Bull Durham and other smoking tobacco brands were packaged for sale. He also financed the invention of a bag-making machine to eliminate the need to employ women to make bags in their homes.39 As the Dukes prospered in the 1890s, they invested in textile mills in Mt. Airy, Rocky Mount, and Danville. The family next established its own wholly-controlled textile mills in Durham. They selected William A. Erwin, whose mother had been born into the pioneering Holt textile family of Alamance County, to manage the new Erwin Cotton Mills Company. At the same time, the Dukes and W. A. and J. Harper Erwin assumed control of the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company as Carr’s empire contracted. By 1899 all the major textile mills in Durham—Erwin, Durham, Pearl, Golden Belt, Commonwealth—had come under Duke or Erwin control.40 As profits from Erwin Mills soared to above 50 percent of the capital stock in the early 1900s, the company expanded to other locations in the state in tandem with Duke investments in mills, banks, hydroelectric power, and railroads.41
The sons of Julian S. Carr sought to reestablish the family’s fortunes by expanding the small hosiery mill the elder Carr had established on Durham’s eastern side in 1898.42 Securing credit from northern banks and benefiting from a growing demand for seamless hosiery in the early 1900s, the younger Carrs built a chain of fourteen mills for the Durham Hosiery Mills Company.43 When the Dukes and Watts established a bank, after rejecting an offer from the senior Carr to set up a trust company in Durham, the Carr family set up a smaller bank.44 In 1917, near the high point of textile prosperity, the hosiery industry in Durham consisted of nine mills ranging in size from the Carr mills, capitalized at $3 million and employing 3,000 workers, to the Knit-Well Hosiery Mill, capitalized at $5,000 and employing 38 workers.45 The major Durham cotton mills included Erwin Mill No. 1 and No. 4, Pearl Mill, the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company, and Golden Belt, a bag-making, hosiery, and cloth-making subsidiary of the American Tobacco Company. Although the Duke-Erwin Alliance dominated the economy of Durham, the Carrs had recouped their losses and made their family an important secondary economic power in the city.
Despite a few antebellum experiments with black labor, the textile industry in the New South established labor policies very different from the segmented patterns in tobacco.46 Excluding black labor almost entirely, the companies recruited white families, who were usually expected to contribute three or more workers. Customarily, a family provided one worker for each room in the house that it rented from the company.47 Children, an important but often unrecorded (and unpaid) part of the tobacco labor force, furnished a major portion of the textile labor supply. In the early years of the industry’s development in Durham, the 250 textile workers included “about one hundred children—many of them very small children under twelve years of age.” Wage data for 1887 indicate the financial incentive: children earned 25 to 50 cents a day, while adults earned 50 to 80 cents. In addition, women and children were more available than men in the 1880s, before the deepening agricultural crisis had convinced many men that there was no future on the land. Gradually the proportion of men in the labor force climbed, but women and children retained a sizable share of the employment. Women began young and generally worked in the mills until marriage, motherhood, or the entry of their children into the factory relieved them of responsibility for wage work as well as housework.48
One factory in the Durham Hosiery Mills chain, located in the East End, departed from the prevailing near-exclusion of black labor from southern textile mills. The Carrs founded Durham Hosiery Mill No. 2 at a time of labor scarcity in the early twentieth century. Although disgruntled whites threatened to blow up the building if the Carrs actually began operations with a black labor force, the Carrs proceeded to hire blacks to “knit cheap socks out of cotton that had formerly been sold as waste.” That mill and another white-run mill in the Carr chain broke with textile traditions in a different way as well. They lacked the usual cluster of mill village housing, which meant that the mostly female labor force had to walk to work from homes secured independently of their employers. Perhaps the senior Carr’s experience in the tobacco industry encouraged the sons to try these innovations. After the mill demonstrated that black women could operate knitting machines, black entrepreneurs launched a short-lived enterprise in which they hired black women to manufacture socks. Although the Carr experiment succeeded in making profits, no other local manufacturers successfully followed their example.49
The mill village and family labor system offered benefits that offset the loss of cheaper black labor. Preserving aspects of the farm family economy perpetuated the male head’s “marked individualism, bred of having performed most of his work alone with the aid of his family,” while easing the family members into an industrial labor force.50 Children reared under the watchful eyes of overseers and mill officials could be molded to suit the needs of an industrial labor force. Workers’ behavior on and off the job could be scrutinized to punish infringements of company policy, such as gambling, drinking, illicit sexual relationships, or union organizing.
A researcher, investigating the relationship between church and industry, accompanied William A. Erwin on his progress through West Durham: “It is a revelation to see the president walk about the grounds of his Durham plant and hail any passing workers with a cheery, ‘good morning,’ using his or her first name and asking after the family. Colored or white, man, woman, or child, it is the same.”51 Many employees approved of these policies. Bessie Taylor Buchanan credited Erwin with building “the community up . . . If a girl got pregnant, her parents had to leave. It was strict. And if a person came in here and didn’t act like he, Erwin, thought they ought to, you’d see them getting out. It was a clean community. We liked it because it was like one big family.”52 Another employee recalled Erwin’s nightly habit of riding around the village at 10 o’clock. Every house with lights still burning received a visit from the curious president. A family with a medical emergency might receive assistance if unable to pay for a doctor’s visit; a family lacking a valid excuse would receive a lecture.53 Mill village paternalism, masterfully applied, molded an unlettered, defeated, and preindustrial people into a cohesive, motivated, and stable labor force at minimal cost.
After a series of strikes in 1918 and 1919 called employee relations into question, some firms sought new managerial techniques. Durham Hosiery Mills developed an unusual antidote to “the nefarious influence of the professional agitator.”54 Unwilling to act the “stern parent” as had earlier generations of managers, Julian S. Carr, Jr., decided to create “an organization of independent individuals who delegate their government to those they think are best able to exercise the executive power.”55 He launched his experiment in “industrial democracy” in 1919 with a constitution carefully designed to preserve managerial prerogatives. The Carr family constituted the executive branch with absolute veto power over all legislation. Foremen appointed by the Carrs became the senate. Employees elected their representatives to the house. No judiciary operated to overrule executive decisions.56
The plan was never intended to “take final control away from the owners of a business.” Instead, it was intended to “provide the form of democracy, but not its essential substance” as a way of inducing restless employees to accept managerial authority.57 After two years, the Carr experiment in “industrial democracy” collapsed during the general crisis in the industry.58 Some observers, however, judged the experiment a success because Durham workers had accepted wage cuts and dismissals at the Carr mills without the “strife and turmoil that . . . accompanied efforts to reduce wages elsewhere.” The Carr family, particularly after the death of Julian S. Carr, Jr., in 1922, resumed more conventional methods of management that did not try to convince workers that an “equality of purpose” existed between themselves and management.59
W. A. Erwin stuck to more familiar methods during the period of labor unrest. According to company official Kemp P. Lewis, Erwin told discontented employees at the Harnett County mill, “We are going to continue running the mill just as they would run their farms if they owned them . . . We want no dissatisfied employees and . . . all who are not pleased with their treatment . . . had better go elsewhere.”60 In Durham, where subtle appeals to a rural heritage could not evoke the same response, the company distributed bonuses and used an industrial spy to monitor worker discontent.61 As the textile crisis continued into the mid-1920s, Lewis followed Erwin’s example in exhorting the Erwin labor force to greater company loyalty. He employed metaphors more likely to appeal to an increasingly urbanized work force. Calling on workers to engage in “team work,” Lewis declared, “There is just as much necessity so far as success goes for co-operation to apply in a cotton mill as in the Army.” Yet his homily ended by echoing earlier themes. The company, he said, felt an “intense desire” to produce good cloth but also wanted “to have Mill villages full of good people leading clean and moral lives.”62 Lewis also enthusiastically introduced “scientific management” that required supervisors to take courses in “modern production methods.” This was a major change in the work process. Lewis called it “the extended labor system”; the Erwin workers who bore its brunt labeled it “the stretch-out.”63 The end of the 1920s saw a shift “from Daddy to businessman,” as the younger Lewis replaced the ailing Erwin in the active leadership of the company.64
A prolonged crisis in the textile industry encouraged the shift from paternalism to a more impersonal managerial style. Overproduction, overcapacity, competition from synthetics, and the consequent decline in prices and profits initiated two decades of fierce competition and souring labor relations. As some companies lost the struggle, ownership in the industry became more concentrated.65 By 1920 the Carr firm had already absorbed several local mills, including the small black-owned mill. Drawing on its capital reserves, the company sought to protect itself against the deteriorating market for cotton hosiery by establishing a mill in Durham to produce full-fashioned (seamed and shaped to fit a woman’s leg) silk hosiery.66 Meanwhile, other mills closed. The surviving companies slashed payrolls, cut hours, eliminated shifts, and increased the speed of the machines.
Erwin Mills also improved its productive efficiency in addition to cutting wages and curtailing production. Adding another mill to its operations at Erwin, North Carolina, the company transferred all its denim production to that location and consolidated its sheeting output at the two Durham mills.67 As a leading chain, it also joined in the national effort to reach agreements to limit production and maintain prices under the auspices of the Cotton Textile Institute.68 The Erwin management joined in discussions with other prominent competitors in the late 1920s about possible mergers—yet another way to restrict competition.69 Ultimately, voluntary efforts to curtail production, fix prices, and effect mergers were stymied by the chaotic structure of the industry and by competition among individual managers. Companies met overstocked inventories by slashing prices while producing more cloth and hosiery. Unable to reduce output, Erwin Mills and other firms implemented internal reforms to cut unit costs. In a labor-intensive industry, managers sought to increase productivity while decreasing payrolls. They purchased new machinery that would enable fewer workers to produce more cloth. As individual firms tried to save themselves, their collective actions intensified the general crisis of the industry and undermined the security of textile and hosiery workers.
The onset of the Great Depression buffeted an already weakened industry. Kemp P. Lewis, then vice-president of Erwin Mills, summed up industry ills in a report to stockholders in 1930. Stating that the firm had been unable to sell its goods “when millions are out of work and the farming and labor elements in our population have little purchasing power,” he announced that the company had curtailed production 50 percent during the previous six months. The company ended the year with an operating loss of $35,000, but other firms entered the 1930s with more dismal records. The Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company had accumulated an operating loss of $128,239.15 by mid-1931. Its president, W. A. Erwin, told its directors in July 1931 that he could not “advise that the mill be operated further.”70 That same summer, Lewis wrote to G. A. Allen of Liggett and Myers proposing that the tobacco company take over Pearl Mill because the Durham company “can’t compete with larger mills.”71 In the following year, Erwin Mills took control of its smaller competitor. The Durham Hosiery Mills closed its large Durham seamless hosiery plant in the mid-1930s.72 After prolonged efforts to save the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company, it went into liquidation at the decade’s end.73 Meanwhile, the Erwin firm, despite an $182,566 loss in 1938, managed average net earnings of $407,430 for the last half of the decade.74 By 1940 Erwin Mills and Golden Belt, sheltered from the full brunt of the economic crisis by their financial resources, were the only prospering survivors of a once thriving industry in Durham.
▪ The black men celebrated by Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and E. Franklin Frazier for their role in the “upbuilding of Black Durham” began their “push upward and onward” in the 1880s and 1890s.75 According to the myth perpetuated by both black and white scholars, these men thrived in an environment where their possessions were “as fairly protected as are the whites.”76 In reality, as implied by Frazier’s observation that their success was due to the “absence of serious competition,” the black professionals and businessmen who came to Durham fitted into the niches allowed them by white industrialists.77 The quintessential city of the New South, Durham lacked white professionals, artisans, and service people to satisfy the needs of its rapidly growing black population. Men like John Merrick, an enterprising barber; W. G. Pearson, an educator; A. M. Moore, a doctor; and James E. Shepard, a pharmacist and minister, succeeded precisely because the color bar gave them a sheltered market within the black community.
The black entrepreneural dynasty began with the arrival of John Merrick, a former slave and skilled barber, who eventually established six barbershops in the city, three for whites and three for blacks. He invested his earnings in real estate and the construction of cheap housing for the black workers who came to labor at American Tobacco Company. His ambiguous relationship with his white patrons was suggested by the way he would “tip his hat to the white man and at the same time call him a son-of-a-bitch under his breath.”78 Together with Aaron M. Moore and Charles C. Spaulding, Merrick transformed a tradition of black secret orders and fraternal lodges into a secular enterprise, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Catering to poorer blacks’ desperate need for minimal security in case of sickness or death, these members of a tiny black capitalist class presided over an expanding empire in real estate, insurance, and banking.79
The narrow economic constraints within which Merrick, Moore, and Spaulding operated were attested by black failures to establish a foothold in the industries that dominated the local economy. Although Richard Fitzgerald, the leading brickmaker in Durham, and Benjamin N. Duke invested in the black-owned W. C. Coleman Mill in Concord, the enterprise employing black workers ended in foreclosure by 1904. Having badgered Duke into investing in the mill, Coleman could not countermand Duke’s decision to close the mill when it failed to repay his loan.80 C. C. Amey’s request to learn how to repair the machines and manage the knitters in a Carr factory in Durham was rebuffed. After acquiring the necesary skills in Philadelphia, Amey opened a small mill in Durham employing black women. DuBois and Washington lavishly praised this effort, but the mill soon fell into the Carr hands because limited capital and managerial inexperience restricted its ability to compete.81 Confined to the sector of the local economy where they did not directly compete with white industrialists, the black capitalists of Durham expanded their businesses with capital extracted from the rent and the premiums paid by black workers.
▪ The existence of a few men who controlled “the purse strings of hundreds of men and women” in Durham aroused intense interest and occasional debate.82 Many Durham citizens agreed with Hiram Paul’s early description of their contributions to the city:
Her Carrs, Blackwells, Dukes and Parrishes, actuated by a lofty State pride, and a sincere desire to advance the best interests of all classes, have freely and unstintingly utilized their energies, brains and money, elevating Durham to the front rank of the Tobacco Marts of the world . . . Here all classes of honest and industrious mechanics and laborers find profitable employment, kind friends, and are surrounded by the most refined, educational, moral and religious influences and advantages. Durham, to-day, is an asylum for the poor.83
The opening of the first textile mill—in the same year that Paul published his history of Durham—was graced by a local Methodist minister and choir. “There is money in these enterprises for the owners, work for our laboring people, and general advantage to the community at large,” wrote the editor of Tobacco Plant, a newspaper owned by Julian S. Carr, in 1888.84 Pleading that “Durham needs more enterprise right now,” the Durham Recorder added, “Let’s be like Noah of old: in his great wisdom he entered the ark and was on the safe side.”85 Ten years later the local press was sounding the same anthem to progress, calling Durham the “most progressive town in North Carolina,” describing her “public buildings, her leading businessmen, her various enterprises” in enthusiastic detail and insisting,
This sense of local pride is universal and confined to no one class. They are a busy people, and find no time to repine over misfortunes, or to murmur “what might have been.” Their satisfied condition, their exemption from “thoughts for the morrow,” might well provoke the envy of many a rich employer, who has learned of these conditions only in theory.86
John Merrick, addressing Durham blacks in 1898, praised the opportunities open to industrious members of his race:
We are here and we are going to stay. And why not stay? We have the same privileges that other people have. Every avenue is open to us to do business there is to any other people. We are allowed to own homes and farms, run farms, do banking business, insurance, real estate business and all other minor business that are done in this Commonwealth. Therefore I claim that the Negro’s condition in North Carolina is as good or better than it’s been since our Emancipation, if we go ahead and use them in the right direction.87
Blacks and whites joined the chorus of praise for the enlightened capitalists of Durham who preached the gospel of faith and work to an integrated congregation.
A few skeptics dissented from the general adulation for Durham’s capitalists. Hiram Paul, once a fervent admirer of the Dukes and the Carrs, became an early critic. Discussing the “vast benefit to the manufacturer” promised by the new Bonsack cigarette-making machine, Paul pointed to a paradox of progress. The machine’s effect “upon another class of our fellow-citizens will be anything but gratifying to the true philanthropist. Thousands of girls, boys, men and women, and among them worthy orphans, widows, and decrepit old age, will be thrown out of employment.”88 Following this discovery of the contradictory interests of labor and capital, Paul took an increasingly critical view of Duke policies. In 1885 he reported to the national labor press that “the lash is freely used on the backs of helpless little children at the Duke factory . . . The ‘poor have a gospel preached into them’ in one factory through the glorious (!) ‘missionary-box’ and lash system.” The appearance of Paul’s reports in the Journal of United Labor and John Swinton’s Paper brought an anxious James B. Duke to appear before the Knights’ General Executive Board and to call on John Swinton in order to mollify the critics. Duke explained to Swinton that “he had to employ many children in his Durham factory in order to get [the] cheap labor” necessary to compete. Duke told the Knights that he would avoid such methods in the future. Paul was unconvinced of Duke’s sincerity, but the Knights ordered him to stop his campaign.89
Fueling the growing debate was the economic reality that the machinery of the mills and factories ran on cheap labor. Privately, the men who capitalized on the “abundance of cheap white labor” and still cheaper black labor admitted as much.90 Seeking to encourage investment in a local cotton mill, one Durham industrialist cited attractions that included “girls” who “can be had at from $2.50 to $4.00 per week.”91 Throwing out a similar lure, Benjamin Duke tried to persuade a Lowell manufacturer to join him in establishing a mill in Durham. In the face of northern reluctance, Duke and his associates drew on their own money to utilize the “advantages” that had failed to attract New England capital.92
In personal correspondence more than three decades later, Kemp P. Lewis conceded “that a lot of cotton manufacturers in North Carolina, but more South of us, are less generous to their employees than they should be.” Writing to an uncle, he defended Erwin wage policies while acknowledging that “they [Erwin employees] are not getting as much money as they need for the high scale of living.” But, he wrote, “we are doing everything we possibly can for the people working for us . . . With the cotton mill prices the way they are, it is an impossibility for us to consider a raise in wages that would amount to anything at all.” Such frankness Lewis reserved for family members and other manufacturers; he never made such admissions publicly or openly criticized the employers whom he privately described as “full of selfishness.”93
Wage data available for the tobacco industry proves conclusively that cheap labor played a significant role in its growth, its southward expansion, and its profitability. Indeed, in the 1880s and 1890s, tobacco wages hovered below the notoriously low wages paid to textile workers in North Carolina.94 Government investigators for the National Recovery Administration in the 1930s discussed the methods by which the tobacco corporations had “successfully met the danger to the industry of being forced to pay a living wage.” The officials also pointed out that information about “the miserable annual earnings of the tobacco workers; the gigantic profits of the companies which employ them; [and] the small part which labor costs plays in the total cost” were “well known to the public.”95
Workers’ comments suggested that they recognized the human costs of a cheap labor policy. Addressing an appeal to cigarette makers, Junius Strickland, an employee in the Duke factory, urged his fellow craftsmen to organize because “unorganized you are helpless; your wages are completely at the will of combined and merciless manufacturers, [and are] liable to be reduced at every fluctuation in the market.”96 In 1887, a year after Strickland’s unheeded appeal, a stamper in a Durham tobacco factory reported:
It takes every cent that myself and wife make to meet our expenses and at this, we are not in as bad circumstances as some others in the locality. Of course, we do not expect to look for any heaven to lay up, but we want, when the time comes when one of our family is called away, to be able to go to the furniture store and purchase what we need to bury the dead.97
Twenty years later, John Lincoln, a young worker, overheard a conversation between W. A. Erwin and a vistor that revealed his employer’s attitudes toward workers:
They were standing close by me when the strange man glanced over the room and said, Not a very intelligent looking bunch of workers you’ve got, taking them as a whole . . . Don’t want them intelligent, he said. If they have too much sense, they’ll realize the difference between their earnings and ours. We have to keep them trod down, you know, trod down.98
Dena Coley, a young black woman, supported her two children on the $4 a week she earned in a Durham stemmery in 1919. Unable to attend church because her dresses had gone to clothe her children, she found life to be very tight and very hard.”99 Ozzie Richmond, whose parents worked at L and M in the 1930s, remembered frequent conversations about the family’s scanty resources:
They’d sit down together and try to discuss the decisions they were making. See, my daddy was making about $8 or $9 a week and my momma was making about $6, $6 and a half. You know that was very little income with four children . . . Course things were pretty cheap then but it was still rough. Some people had it worse . . . because some people didn’t have no job.100
Oh, they can make plenty of money—enough while old man Duke was slave-driver so he could give fifty-two million dollars in one whack to a little old college here called Trinity College, to get them to call it Duke University. That’s money our people before us sweated to make for him. Duke? Well, just a place where rich men’s sons go and live in luxury four years and come back to drive us in cotton mills, mines, in fields and these tobacco plants and work our day-lights out so they can have big, fine buildings like at Duke.101
In the mid-1920s Durham capitalists began to face criticism from an unexpected source. Prominent women, including the wives of local manufacturers, Duke professors, and the sisters of men like K. P. Lewis, took up the cause of young working women in their state. The League of Women Voters, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs encouraged women to investigate conditions in local industries and discuss issues with women workers. Almost as soon as the YWCA began its work in Durham, K. P. Lewis warned its president that the “tendencies of industrial work in the Y was a very dangerous one.” Pointing to the “terrible menace” of the “closed shop movement,” he advised, “I think the Y should be careful to be conservative and not encourage some of the very harmful and radical views that are now being spread abroad.” His warnings apparently were not heeded. Young women, sent by the YWCA to a summer school for women workers, returned to conduct classes for other workers and to raise questions about industrial practices. In 1925 several members of the Durham Industrial Girls Club agreed to testify before the North Carolina legislature in support of an investigation of women’s working conditions in the textile industry, a proposal sponsored by a coalition of women’s associations.102 Nell Battle Lewis, K. P. Lewis’s feminist sister, vigorously endorsed the movement through her weekly column in the News and Observer. This rebellion by female members of their class alarmed Lewis, Benjamin Duke, and other manufacturers.
As the 1920s ended, they faced a still more formidable alliance formed by progressive women like Nell Battle Lewis and Mary O. Cowper, radical professors from Duke and the University of North Carolina, and labor organizers like Alfred Hoffman of the Hosiery and Textile Workers. When Frank Porter Graham, an outspoken champion of the “equal right of the investors of capital” and “the investors of human life and labor to bargain collectively,” became president of the University of North Carolina, the university became a battlefield.103
Durham’s black bourgeoisie did not escape criticism, although its policy of promoting racial uplift as well as business expansion mollified most observers. W. E. B. DuBois praised the black businesses that he observed in Durham, although he voiced reservations about “triumphant commercialism” as a potential destroyer of the “souls of black folk” in a “dusty desert of dollars and smartness.”104 The very caution shown by black businessmen in accommodating themselves to white power could evoke dissent in the black community.105 Lower-class blacks, who suspected that the “big niggers” were in some sense allies of whites and who doubted that they themselves could achieve wealth without white patronage, felt both pride and resentment toward the small clique that exercised such conspicuous influence over the rest of the black community.106 They did not fail to observe that the privileged tended to marry within their own circles, to hire their own children, and to favor lighter complexions on their staffs and in the institutions that they established. A young woman, the daughter of a female tobacco worker, noted that “social class and color” were the “primary criteria used in determining status” at the college established by Durham’s black elite. The faculty continued to assume as late as the 1960s that “light-skinned students were more intelligent”; the children “of the professional class . . . used to toss their heads and flaunt themselves around the students whose parents were black working class.”107 Resentment, however, did not erupt into open conflict until the 1960s. There was a more important enemy: white men. “Forget all of this class feeling,” a black businessman told his audience in the mid-1930s; “We are all in the same boat.”108 Incidents such as one in 1931 in which C. C. Spaulding was beaten by a “little old peckerwood” in a Raleigh drugstore for violating the color line lent credibility to his plea. The common enemy, coupled with friendly relations between employers and employees at black-owned enterprises, worked to minimize friction between classes within the black community.
▪ Durham industrialists were aware of the dangers of an open confrontation between capital and labor. They sought to deflect public attention from both the fundamental conflict over low wages and the equally volatile question of workers’ rights to organize. Industrial spokesmen strove to convince the public that the “natural instinct of mill management” was always directed toward “the best interests of employees.”109 Wooing the press, which they subsidized, they framed a public discourse that extolled wealth and power as the hallmarks of the Christian gentlemen they represented themselves to be. They appeared regularly in the local press in the guise of pure, disinterested philanthropists, the Noahs who gathered all the worthy, respectable citizenry into the ark of prosperity. Black businessmen adopted a similar strategy. Their publications claimed that “the North Carolina Mutual shows that the race is gradually emerging from under” a “great cloud, a dark night of lost confidence” by teaching “the secret of successful accumulation.” Criticisms of high rates for insurance were met by assurances that “many advantages which accrue to our race . . . more than offset this slight difference in rates.”110 The second generation followed the first. The activities of Erwin, Lewis, the younger Carrs, Asa Spaulding, John H. Wheeler, and other associates offered proof of the “constructive philanthropy” of New South businessmen.111 Donations to charities, to the YWCA and YMCA, to hospitals, schools, and churches demonstated that businessmen adhered to the principles of Christian stewardship.
When criticism was not stilled despite philanthropy and the adulation of the local media, Durham capitalists took sterner measures. Hiram Paul found that ceasing to flatter the “leading spirits” of Durham carried penalties. His printing office began to lose customers. A creditor, “backed, as I learn, by the Dukes,” demanded immediate repayment of a loan. “The consequence,” Paul reported to the Knights of Labor, “is that I am in very embarrassing circumstances, and, unless matters improve, will be compelled to sell my office at a great sacrifice and leave the city.”112 Embittered, Paul fell victim to the power of the Dukes to silence critics.
The Knights of Labor came under direct attack in the local press. Describing the unequal balance of force between labor and capital, the editor of the Durham Recorder warned local members of the order against following Paul’s example:
Now, we would warn these men, for in the first place it is against the law of North Carolina, and then when labor kicks against capital, labor always comes out at the small end of the horn. It is but foolish for labor to kick against capital. Capital can lay back and rest and have plenty to live on, while labor is only dependent upon what is done during the day. Now we ask who can live the longest? Has not capital every advantage?113
Simultaneously, foremen in Durham factories threatened to discharge members of the Knights. When the Bonsack machine reached operational efficiency, the Dukes swiftly moved to discharge the cigarette rollers, who had comprised the core of the order in their factory. By 1888, the order had disintegrated in Durham.
Industrialists continued reluctant to bargain with their employees. W. A. Erwin dismissed employees in 1900 when they dared to organize a union. Entire families lost their homes and were reduced to near starvation. Relenting a little, Erwin opened the company store to the starving victims of an industrial war, but they had to seek employment elsewhere. In 1919 the first serious attempt since the Knights’ to organize Durham tobacco factories ended when the chief organizer lost his job.114 Durham Hosiery Mills discharged union members after a strike at the Marvin Carr Silk Mill in the mid-1920s. Industrial spies and paid informers within the union ranks reported in the late 1920s to Lewis of Erwin Mills, Will Carr of Durham Hosiery Mills, and W. D. Carmichael of Liggett and Myers.115 Making full use of their superior economic resources and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of labor, Durham industrialists provided persuasive evidence that “when labor kicks against capital, labor always comes out at the small end of the horn.”
The women in the local YWCA also learned the price of challenging the power of local industrialists. The YWCA’s endorsement of a survey of the textile industry in North Carolina produced unexpected results. When the YWCA board tried to raise money to build a dormitory to house working women, the manufacturers rejected their appeals. Benjamin Duke’s “turning them down made them very discouraged and bitter.” When the women vowed to call off the campaign and blame local manufacturers for its failure, Lewis and other businessmen engaged them in a blunt three-hour discussion. The Durham YWCA thereupon agreed “to co-operate with the manufacturers for the best interest of the City” and Lewis promised to donate to the YWCA building fund.116
Elsewhere in the state, officers from other organizations supporting the industrial survey were pressured to resign. The president of the League of Women Voters received an ultimatum from her husband. Unless all publicity were stopped about the campaign, she would have to “resign at once.” As the president told Mary O. Cowper, the league’s executive secretary and a Durham resident, “Our bread and butter comes entirely from the Mills and there are many families in our Company affected so it’s a serious thing for them. It would be better to have a President anyway who is not connected in any way with N.C. Industries, for it is brought back home to them in many ways.”117 In Durham the chastened YWCA refrained from further challenges to the industrial status quo, but industrialists like K. P. Lewis were too quick to claim final victory over their critics.
In the 1930s, Lewis, then a member of the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees, led an undercover campaign to prevent President Graham from allowing the university to serve as a forum for the discussion of industrial and race relations. When Graham failed to respond to warnings in the pages of the Textile Bulletin and the regular press, Lewis joined with others in pressing for his resignation. He explained his motives clearly: “I think of the university in a way as I do my church—that it has no business in political or controversial questions.”118 Unable to convince a majority on the board that Graham’s devotion to academic freedom and open discussion merited dismissal, Lewis reluctantly abandoned the fight to censor debate at the university. His efforts to silence critics, however, continued in other arenas.
Beyond stifling unfavorable public discourse, Durham capitalists tried to create a positive social image through their piety. Levi Branson, the editor of a local business directory, sketched an idealized portrait in which the industrialists served the best interests of both God and the residents of Durham:
The leaders are for Durham and they work to the same end. The association spirit is highly developed. The citizens are very much like one family. They help each other and rejoice in each others’ success. They are not only a moral but a religious people. They build fine Churches to honor God, and He honors them with success. They work, they pray, they wait, they honor each other—they honor the Master.119
Beginning with Washington Duke, Julian S. Carr, and George Watts, Durham manufacturers actively inculcated their belief in an “eminently practical religion” as a sure guide to worldly success. After a conflict-ridden encounter with Jewish cigarette makers imported from New York, the Dukes established a company policy of hiring local whites and worshiping “with those we employ.” Washington Duke organized a Sunday school in one room of the Duke factory. There Junius Strickland was converted from a radical Knight to devoted employee and Sunday school teacher. After the construction of the Main Street Methodist Church near the factory, Washington and Benjamin Duke continued to teach Bible classes. An anonymous tobacco manufacturer, probably Julian S. Carr, described a similar approach: “My experience is that we need to educate, elevate, and stimulate our factory labor” and “encourage church-building and church-going.” Carr established Sunday schools and churches in East Durham where his hosiery empire had begun, and he conducted a Sunday school class for many years. A devout Methodist, he explained his religious zeal at a banquet in 1912: “Durham’s greatest asset is her Methodism . . . doing business every day in the week for Christianity and the uplift of humanity.”120
George Watts, a Presbyterian, also conducted a Sunday school class. In addition, he chaired an interdenominational mission intended to convert all Durham citizens to active Christianity. W. A. Erwin and John C. Kilgo cooperated with Watts in this campaign.121 Episcopalians Erwin and Lewis established Bible classes for their predominantly Baptist and Methodist labor force in West Durham. Ambitious workers realized that regular church attendance promised economic as well as spiritual rewards. Yet when asked about the proper relationship between church and industry, Erwin expressed the view common to the Durham capitalists: “The church should not meddle in industrial affairs.”122 Seeing their own motives as pure and disinterested, manufacturers denounced critics like Methodist Bishop James Cannon as “agitators” who were either seeking publicity or were ignorant of actual conditions.123
The alliance between church and business was still more pronounced in Black Durham, where the church often served as a recruitment center for Mutual agents. A devout believer that “business and religion will mix,” C. C. Spaulding instructed his agents to use the church as their “most powerful contact.”124 Black ministers in Durham received Christmas gifts from the Mutual and, in turn, discussed “business cooperation” in special services for their congregations. In tribute, Spaulding’s portrait hung among those of church leaders at the Nashville headquarters of the National Baptist convention. A skeptical Baptist described the influence exerted by the “town moguls” over the White Rock Baptist Church:
In this church you meet capitalism undressed and undiluted. In this church capital dominates and I don’t mean chicken feed. It is an interlocking directorate . . . When you rise to preach, you look into the faces of people . . . who are connected either by family or business with Shepard, Kennedy, or Spaulding. All of them are officials of the church, Kennedy being the business manager. Now go there and preach a red hot sermon about the proletariat.125
Nevertheless, under the skillful and diplomatic leadership of the Reverend Mark Miles Fisher, pastor of White Rock from the 1930s into the 1960s, the church began to espouse “the just cause of labor along with the right claims of capital.” Spaulding cautioned Fisher that “those who are in authority and giving employment to our people are watching every move we make,” but the pastor opened the church to black tobacco workers’ meetings.126 That action was a conspicuous exception to the generally neutral posture of other black ministers. According to the Reverend John Newsome, a preacher outside the mainstream churches, “If all preachers were like Reverend Fisher, Durham would be a union city and everything would be organized.”127
Like the Christian patriarchs they conceived themselves to be, Durham’s capitalists exercised moral guardianship over their workers. White manufacturers were concerned with the moral reputations of their female workers; black employers concentrated on safeguarding “our young women.”128 Washington Duke demanded that the young women hired in the Duke factory be “self-respecting,” “religious,” and “chaste.”129 A Durham Cotton Manufacturing official declared, “We have a very moral place. We have no drinking around the mill. They seem very satisfied here; we have had no trouble whatever in regard to strikes.” An employee concurred: “The officers are kind and pay close attention to work and sobriety and morality is required of all who work here.”130 Like the cotton mill management, Liggett and Myers enforced chastity among their unmarried white women workers; those who became pregnant or provoked gossip were dismissed. The Erwin Mills policy, as described by one worker, required dismissal for the following infractions: “You couldn’t join a labor union or have a party, that was a cardinal sin, and if somebody in your family, like a young girl, if she got pregnant, that girl had to leave that family and go somewhere else or the whole family would be run away from the place.”131 The contract that a worker was required to sign in 1909 prohibited “intemperance, profanity, or obscene language, or fighting on the premises” and “gross misconduct or drunkenness” elsewhere.132 Indeed, Kemp Lewis justified the company-owned mill village on the ground that it “gives the management a better chance to protect the community from people of low character and dissolute life.”133 These men rarely doubted that their mission was “to uplift and make . . . [their workers] better.”134 Their success was due in part to their confidence in their own righteousness and their employees’ willingness to accept their relentless supervision.
▪ Good works and faith were not the only instruments wielded by Durham capitalists to dominate the civic life of Durham. Ties of kinship bound the respective racial elites. Six of the first seven presidents of the North Carolina Mutual Company were related. Kinlike ties—presided over by the “patriarch,” “moral overlord,” and “Papa” of the company—instilled loyalty among the employees.135 The white business elites used marriage to cement their connections to political figures and business partners. Benjamin Duke married Sarah Angier, a daughter of Durham’s first mayor. Later their children would marry the children of the Philadelphia Biddies. Julian Carr and his brother married the Parrish sisters, whose brother ran a major tobacco warehouse in Durham and whose father was a mayor of Durham.136 Through his mother, W. A. Erwin was linked to the Holt family, the dominant textile interests in Alamance County, where he first learned to manage a business. His close associate at Erwin Mills, E. K. Powe, was also his brother-in-law. J. Harper Erwin, his brother, was the president of other textile mills in Durham.137 Against the better judgment of his subordinate, K. P. Lewis, W. A. Erwin groomed his son to assume a major role in the company. The young man’s death frustrated that plan. K. P. Lewis’s mother, Cornelia Battle Lewis, was a direct descendent of the Battle family of Rocky Mount, who had been operating the Rocky Mount Cotton Mills since the early nineteenth century. A grandfather served as president of the University of North Carolina. His brother, Richard H. Lewis, ran the Oxford Cotton Mills, in which the Erwins held an interest.138 John Sprunt Hill, Durham’s leading banker, achieved his position through his marriage to the only daughter of George Watts.139 Brothers and cousins ran the Durham Hosiery Mills. Although the Carrs claimed that John O’Daniel, the black man who recruited labor for the mill, was only a faithful family servant, gossip in Durham held that O’Daniel was a son of the elder Carr.140 Bonds, cemented by blood, marriage, and economic interests, helped to create a self-conscious and exclusive ruling class.
The power and the connections formed by Durham capitalists extended beyond the city itself. Membership on the boards of other tobacco, textile, financial, utility, and transportation interests integrated Durham company officials into a national capitalist class. White and black business leaders participated in national organizations to define a common agenda, lobby for favorable treatment from the state and national governments, and devise solutions to their mutual problems. Durham’s black capitalists were moving spirits behind the National Negro Business League, which was designed to promote black capitalism.141 Durham’s white capitalists assumed leadership in the manufacturers’ organizations in their respective industries and in general organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers. Beginning in 1900, the officers of Erwin Mills took part in the state textile industry’s campaign against unions, anti–child labor laws, and other forms of state intervention into employment policies.142 W. A. Erwin and K. P. Lewis served as directors of the Southern Railway, local banks, and other textile mills.143 Tobacco manufacturers were more active than their textile counterparts. In a report on Julian S. Carr in 1899, the Durham Recorder observed, “There is almost no enterprise in his home city in which he does not bear a leading part.” The Recorder then listed Carr’s activities. He was president of a Durham bank, the electric light company, and the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company. He was vice-president of another Durham mill, treasurer of the local telephone company, and vice-president in a railroad company.144 The Dukes and Watts filled still more directorships and presidencies. Benjamin Duke, who in 1900 had replaced Carr as president of the Blackwell Durham Tobacco Company, also served as president of one cotton mill, one bank, one lumber company, and one railroad in addition to directorships of eight additional textile mills, two banks, the American Tobacco Company, and two railroads. His close associate, George Watts, was reported to hold directorships in eight textile mills, five of which were in Durham. In addition, he served as a director of three banks, three tobacco companies, and two railroads.145 John Sprunt Hill, Watts’ son-in-law, became Durham’s leading banker through the influence of his wealthy father-in-law. These men of the New South had gathered enormous economic power in their hands.
Although the elder Carr nourished political ambitions, culminating in unsuccessful efforts to capture the Democratic Party nomination for senator in the 1890s, most of Durham’s capitalist class exercised political influence through donations to candidates and financing of both secular and religious press that defended corporations against populist, socialist, or reform attacks.146 Ironically, Carr’s ambitions spurred him to make rhetorical assaults on “plutocrats,” “malefactors of great wealth,” and “self-confessed directors of trusts and life-long Republicans” like his crosstown rivals, the Dukes.147 The Dukes, however, never faced much danger from the conservative, probusiness Democrats who actually controlled the party. The second generation of Durham industrialists avoided even the verbal battles that had pitted the Dukes against the elder Carr. They preferred to lend quiet background support to candidates and causes that defended white supremacy, opposed unions, and created a favorable climate for investment. While Carr was mounting the plantform, W. A. Erwin quietly promoted the passage of black disfranchisement by sanctioning the organization of a White Supremacy Club in West Durham. He addressed a mass meeting intended to whip up voter support for the constitutional amendment and also granted permission for a parade through West Durham. The parade was led by a man carrying a White Supremacy banner, and included a large white float carrying sixteen young women dressed in white and bearing streamers with the slogan, “Protect us with your vote.” This was a central motif of the campaign organized by Democratic leaders Furnifold Simmons and Charles Aycock.148 W. A. Erwin and other textile company officials also led the industry’s defense against child labor laws. They tried to persuade the public that “compulsory education” was unnecessary because good manufacturers like themselves “encourage our help all we can to take advantage of their opportunities.” When such appeals no longer appeared credible, K. P. Lewis fashioned an updated defense that placed responsibility on the parent who “would apply for work and stipulate that employment would also be given to his children.”149
Making full use of their economic clout, company officials negotiated deals with local officials that limited the flow of resources to public services. West Durham and East Durham remained outside the Durham city limits through the adroit use of pressure and influence. Even as they resisted incorporation in the city, Erwin officials complained that a law prescribing school attendance for all children could not “be enforced because there are too many children for the schools.”150 In such a context, they did not mention their own reluctance to pay city taxes. Once they had lost the fight to keep their mill villages outside the city, Erwin and Durham Hosiery Mills officials took a more active part in the city government.151 Lewis served on the school board; W. H. Carr joined the Durham City Council and rose to the mayoralty in the 1930s. Lewis and other businessmen also campaigned for a city manager system, essentially because the electoral system gave too much power to men whose interests might differ from theirs.152
While keeping taxes low, these men also used their political power to defend their city against potential threats. An AFL film, for example, was barred from being screened in the city auditorium on the ground that it presented a “fire hazard.”153 In the event of a strike, city police were expected to maintain “order.” In short, Durham’s leading industrialists made sure that men sympathetic to their interests would control city and state governments. Should local authorities ever prove unwilling to maintain public order, state troopers or militia could be called on to defend the rights of property and the rights of loyal employees to work.154
Durham’s white business elite developed some informal methods for determining who should have a voice in public affairs. They sponsored the use of racist propaganda in mass meetings, public demonstrations, and local Democratic organs in order to exclude blacks from politics. Agitators were forced to leave town; Edward J. Parrish, brother-in-law of Julian S. Carr, personally accompanied one man accused of inciting blacks in 1888 to the edge of town—before a mob could accomplish the same task. Black men like John Merrick, who asked, “What difference does it make to us who is elected?” were allowed to prosper unmolested. Black men like W. G. Pearson, initially active in Republican Party affairs, learned to accept exclusion from self-government.155
It was a lesson that all of Durham’s first generation black bourgeosie came to terms with after the violence directed against black political rights during the 1898 and 1900 campaigns. They lived according to the advice that Washington Duke offered in 1890: “Do honest work for an honest dollar . . . at night when you lie down with it under your pillow, the eagle on its face will sing you to sleep.”156 Even so, the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and the “Red Shirts” that had terrorized black voters that year and in the 1900 election haunted Charles Spaulding into the 1930s.157 During the racial upheaval of 1919, when race riots spread across the nation, Spaulding and the other business leaders reiterated the belief that the people of Durham were “too busy” to “have racial differences.”158
A journalist who came to Durham in the late 1920s described the techniques black businessmen used to protect their economic interests. Taking advantage of the rivalry between the leading industrialists, black businessmen were “able to interlock their business interests and divide their allegiance to the Dukes and Carrs so as to steer clear of any entanglements that could jeopardize the success of their undertakings.” They spoke in “most reverent terms of the Dukes and General Carr” while ignoring Carr’s frequent political speeches attacking “Duke niggers.” One local black leader explained, “We prefer to think of General Carr in terms of his benefactions rather than his politics.”159
As long as black leaders accommodated themselves to the repressions of white supremacy, Durham’s white establishment felt no need to return to the more brutal methods of the 1890s. K. P. Lewis declined an invitation to join the Ku Klux Klan in 1921 because, as he informed his father, “Matters could be very much better handled . . . open and above-board.”160 Lewis’s service on the Durham Interracial Commission along with one of the Carrs and W. D. Carmichael of L and M enabled him to prevent the appearance of any semblance of “social equality” in Durham while allowing the black community to be represented by a few spokesmen chosen by whites. In the 1930s, some younger, more radical blacks like Louis Austin who were “disposed to force issues without regard to consequences” brought modifications in the “long-standing institutionalized relationship” but did not transform it into open confrontation. Austin, the editor of the Carolina Times, publicly called “white people big apes and fools,” but Spaulding continued to use “a little more diplomacy” in his own dealings. He joined with Austin, James E. Shepard, and other leading citizens to form the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs in 1935, an organization committed to regaining political power for black people. Quietly, Spaulding also lent support to the new politics of agitation and legal action under the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Police brutality, unequal pay for black teachers, discrimination in higher education, and inadequate public services to the black community became the subjects of NAACP and Durham Committee concerns. Yet, the old politics of deference still persisted. As Durham’s white city manager said in 1937, “We . . . work with their leaders, for the Negroes trust them and fall in line with what they say; that’s the way for us to have peace.” Black Durham was no longer “too busy” or too intimidated to admit that “racial differences” existed, but its traditional leaders were willing to accept white domination of the political and economic system.161
Members of the lower classes in the black community expressed contradictory opinions about the “peace” that was negotiated between the black and white elites. Comparing Durham favorably to the racial climate in states like South Carolina, one tobacco worker declared in the 1930s, “This about the last town going South where the white people ain’t so ‘rebish’ [rebel-like] but from here on down they are as mean as hell.” Others did not believe that “race relations are good in this city.” A black tobacco worker pointedly distinguished between working-class blacks and the tiny black elite: “I guess things are pretty good for them.” The absence of overt racial warfare did not transform Durham into a utopia for its expanding class of black workers despite its reputation as the black Zion of the South. The basic divisions of “caste and class” remained entrenched in the political economy of Durham, enabling the white industrialists to keep “the city under control.”162
Even so, the power of the dominant white industrialists had been eroded by the shift toward a more aggressive stance in the black community and by rising levels of defiance among Durham workers. By the mid-1920s the subordinate classes no longer deferred to the authority of their superiors as a “matter of course.” Women as well as men now professed a belief in their right to a “say-so” about working conditions and openly wondered “what the results would be if we did.”163 Shocked employers cast about for explanations and new ways of dealing with rebellious workers who no longer responded to paternalist actions or appeals for Christian harmony. A new class had begun to define itself in opposition to a class accustomed to unchallenged hegemony. A farmer observing construction of a gothic tower at Duke University asked a question that was echoed by workers employed in the old Duke factory: “I wonder what part of it he took away from me?” “The modern politics of power and textiles and tobacco corporations” that had grown from Durham’s soil had finally led to an open struggle for power.164
In Hayti, the center of black life in Durham (named after the black republic but spelled as it is pronounced), the ironies of life in “the capital of the black middle class” had grown too sharp for some to bear. A sensitive observer, Jonathan Daniels, the repentant son of a race-baiting father, noted the contradictory outcomes that sixty years of progress had brought to black Durham:
There are many such lines even in Durham where the Negro has made money and lifted his pride. Negro insurance men and bankers work in a building in the same business section where the white offices are, but there are wide lines of railroad tracks between where the Negroes work and where they live. Indeed, Hayti . . . is almost the black ghetto complete. I rode across the tracks and by the tobacco factories. The blue and white uniforms for servants, sold everywhere by the chain stores, seem almost the uniform of Negro women in Durham, where they work in the rough preparation of the tobacco while the white girls turn out the endless tubes of Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes.165
But as Jonathan Daniels had broken with the white supremacist tradition of his father, so the black women working in “the rough preparation of tobacco” were beginning to deliver themselves from the burdens of their pasts.
If women, black and white, had begun to define themselves as part of a class opposed to the capitalists and patriarchs of Durham, we must turn back again to their journey into town. We must explore their roles as mothers and midwives to a class being born in the workplaces and the streets, their initial entry into the factory system, and their eventual participation in the organization of their class. Yet we must chronicle this process without overlooking the complex social divisions between the “Negro women” and the “white girls.” Granny midwives could aid white mothers in delivering their babies while still observing the taboos against whites and blacks eating together; against greater odds, a single class could be incarnated in a world segregated by race and gender.