IN THE FACTORY
On arriving in Durham, rural migrants ventured into an urban landscape that bore marks of the same forces that had uprooted them from the land. The railroads curving through the city’s heart and the factories bordering its tracks constituted the most prominent landmarks in the man-made environment. Finding work placed the newcomer in the social hierarchy. Bessie Taylor arrived by train in bare feet and a nightgown when she was eight years old and took a position in the Erwin spinning room after her father asked her to choose between work and school. She lived in a mill house in West Durham and grew to womanhood in a tightly controlled community where W. A. Erwin was “like a Daddy” to her.1 Five days after her arrival in Durham with her two children and mother, Hetty Love stood in line at a tobacco factory gate where black workers were hired “by the number. Some people didn’t get on and they have to come back another day . . . I was just lucky like that and got in.”2 Martha Gena Harris, a fifteen-year-old white girl, got a job at American Tobacco through a family acquaintance who worked as a forelady, a common route into the prized jobs in the tobacco factory.3 Esther Jenks found employment easier to secure in the job-hungry 1930s because her father’s skills as a loom fixer gave her family bargaining power with employers. Born, educated, and employed in a succession of mill villages, Jenks never developed the personal loyalty to a single mill manager that was shown by the less transient Bessie Taylor.4
The frequent moves made by Mary Burdette in pursuit of better working conditions revealed the economic plight of a young woman who depended on her own earnings to support her family. Leaving one small mill village because some “of the people weren’t desirable neighbors,” Burdette came to Durham with her sister. Through a friend she found work in a tobacco factory, but “could hardly breathe, the tobacco dust was so thick.” “Taking the next job I heard of,” Burdette started making bags at Golden Belt before quitting to return to school “with the hopes that I could finish some day.” Forced to take a job, she worked at the Golden Belt cotton mill. The wages were lower than the bag mill, and “the people dipped snuff and spit on the floor,” a custom begun as a protection against cotton dust but which distressed her. “As soon as they had an opening,” Burdette returned to the bag mill, worked for several years, and quit when the overseer ordered her to work at night. Clerking at a jewelry store tided her over the Christmas season; she then found work at the Durham Hosiery Mills as an inspector. Promoted to forelady, she told her interviewer in the mid-1920s, “I expect to keep on working in the cotton mill, but I hope to be able to change the working conditions soon.”5 Prodded by family needs, economic necessity, and the absence of more attractive alternatives, women sought jobs in Durham factories in a process complicated by the biased hiring procedures of the white men who dictated company policy.
▪ Whatever their origins, women and men employed in the mills and factories became industrial workers. In that bruising encounter with the power of managers, the relentless pressure of machines, and the discipline of factory whistles and time clocks, workers were produced along with cigarettes, hosiery, and cotton cloth. Managers, foremen, overseers, and second hands translated the abstract reality of capitalist power into factory discipline. Often locally born and bred, they incorporated existing patterns of authority and divisions of labor into the industrial labor process.
Patriarchal authority, the widespread adherence to a sexual division of labor, racial segregation, and black subordination to white authority offered ways to divide and control the labor force. Yet traditional patterns and institutions could not be mechanically reproduced in the factory setting. A textile mill and the surrounding mill village, however superficially they resembled a plantation, differed in purpose and personnel.6 Subjecting white people, especially adult men, to paternalistic authority subverted longstanding tradition in a society where such subordination had been acceptable only for an inferior race and a submissive sex.7 Although the traditional allocation of certain tasks as “men’s work” and “women’s work” appeared suited to factory production, the rationale behind the divisions was weakened by the actual similarity between the jobs and the powerless position of most men as well as all women.8 The recruitment of young white women into the tobacco industry, where blacks were employed in large numbers, presented risks of a contradictory sort. The potential for racial confrontations was obvious. On the other hand, having blacks and whites work under similar conditions made class-based alliances more possible. Thus, despite divisions already embedded in the work force, managers did not always find it easy to deal with individuals “fresh from rural independence” who could be correctly described as “loyal and tractable” and “at the same time, restive.”9
Managers never operated in a cultural vacuum. Their strategies were constrained by economic competition, by popular notions of justice and morality, by their own attitudes toward race, gender, and class, and by their exposure to contemporary theories of management, profit-making, and labor relations. Workers’ values might concur with managerial views on some issues, but when workers came from a different social milieu, the potential for misunderstandings magnified. For example, the Duke decision to import about 125 skilled Polish cigarette rollers from New York City in the early 1880s led to explosive ideological clashes. The class- and craft-conscious New Yorkers instructed their coworkers in socialist theory and stirred up a public debate about the methods used by the Dukes to discipline employees. They objected to “tyrannous shop rules,” child labor, and the whipping of children, and they also resisted efforts to transform or speed up their customary way of production.10 After the Bonsack cigarette-making machine reached operational efficiency, the Dukes replaced the malcontents with “our own people,” who were made to understand “that their situation in the factory depended upon their attendance or membership” in the “fine churches” established by the Dukes.11 Later episodes, however, suggested that Christian harmony did not always prevail in Durham factories.
Nonetheless, the emphasis on religion was useful in counteracting some of the risks entailed in employing local whites, especially women and children, rather than relying on all-black or all-male labor. The entrance of young white women into the public workplace also proved controversial. Southern society was particularly troubled by the prospect of white women being made vulnerable to predatory males of either race. The sexual behavior of poor whites and blacks had long been suspect, and the mill villages and factory towns were perceived as breeding grounds for promiscuity. “Daily contact” might lead black men in particular to become “bolder and less respectful” to white women.12 Because Durham employers believed that chastity was linked to the diligence and obedience they wanted in their employees, they pledged to maintain a “moral” work force of “respectable” young ladies only.13 Strict sexual abstinence for unmarried women became a standard part of factory discipline.14 Mere suspicion of sexual misbehavior could lead to dismissal, a policy that continued to be enforced into the 1930s.15 No such anxiety applied to black female employees, who were assumed to lack the purity of white womanhood. This assumption was entirely congruent with antebellum attitudes. Employers not only failed to guard the virtue of their black female employees but tolerated their sexual exploitation by white foremen. Indeed, Ernest Seeman’s exposé of Durham and its financial geniuses, whose fortunes “were grounded in low-priced labor,” portrays Tysander Warham (Brodie Duke) as consorting with “his high-yellow mistresses up over his factory.”16 Factory morality, like its antebellum predecessor, divided women into pure and impure by color, while striving to convince white public opinion that factory work created no moral stigma for virtuous white women.
Workers sometimes found this paternalist ideology congenial. Many female employees took satisfaction in belonging to a moral community and “a higher class of people.”17 The same code protected white women at L and M from the sexual harassment endured by black women, and even encountered by white women at American Tobacco, where “love birds” received favors from management.18 Workers sometimes turned paternalism to their advantage. The Erwins, the Carrs, and other officials grudgingly came to accept “local traditions about days on which work could be done.”19 During revivals or church homecomings, God was served before Mammon; on other days, the circus, funerals, or electioneering came before a day’s work at the factory. Nor could employers always successfully enforce their rules against drinking, gambling, premarital sex, or other transgressions. Laws requiring two weeks’ notice before quitting, or forbidding one mill from enticing another mill’s employees, might slow a textile family’s ability to move but could not eliminate that method of protest. Indeed, mill managers who wished to keep a stable labor force learned to pay careful attention to employee morale. They invested money and time in schools, playgrounds, milk stations, libraries, recreation centers, and other facilities—but carefully avoided the word welfare, whose connotations were disliked by Erwin workers because “they like to feel independent.”20
There were always ways to avoid authority. Courting couples who wished to violate the Erwin edict against cuddling at the movies could venture into Durham rather than attend free showings at the Erwin Auditorium. Sympathetic coworkers might conspire to protect an unmarried pregnant woman from the Erwin policy that required the expulsion of her entire family from the village.21 Indeed, as management recognized—by its practice of placing industrial spies in the factories in the 1920s and 1930s—workers were able to disguise their activities and opinions from the most watchful employers.22 Black workers were particularly adept at this. Schooled by decades of racial oppression, they mystified their supervisors by practicing the ethic of never lying “except to white people.”23 When questioned about the impact of a child labor law on their black employees, for example, the superintendant and foreman for the Imperial Tobacco Company rather helplessly replied, “One can never tell about negroes in that respect.” On the other hand, these comments also reflected sheer callousness because they argued that eliminating child labor was an advantage for white children but not for black—even though “there is no future for a child in this business.”24
Despite minor setbacks, managers successfully used elements in the workers’ cultures to adapt them to factory life. Religion was one important tool. Another was white supremacy, which employers catered to by excluding black workers or limiting them to “Negro” jobs, thus making common cause with their white employees on the issue. Although the Carrs, at least in one hosiery mill, defied the edict against allowing blacks to operate machines, most Durham employers honored the “color line.”
The belief in clear distinctions between “men’s work” and “woman’s work” was yet another cultural imperative. Specific industries and companies chose different approaches to the definition of particular jobs as “women’s work.” Textile managers gave women the “light” work of spinning, weaving, and associated tasks, while men performed the “heavy” work of opening cotton bales and carding, the “skilled” work of fixing the looms and sizing or dyeing the cloth, and the “responsible” tasks of supervising other employees. Hosiery officials believed that “girls can become loopers but they do not make good knitters.” Like bag making and sack stringing, looping was believed appropriate for married women in their spare time. As one Durham hosiery manufacturer explained, “They can work at night after their children are put away in bed and their household work is over.”25 Thus the sexual division of labor took account of women’s specific responsibilities for reproduction and domestic work, while providing employers with an ample supply of cheap labor.
The leading tobacco companies in Durham differed in the work they assigned men and women, but in each case the division was assumed to be a necessary consequence of the sex’s unique characteristics. A policy of employing white women as packers began in the Duke factory in the 1880s and was continued by Liggett and Myers, who took control of operations in 1911. White women continued to operate the packing machines at L and M while white men ran the “making” machines that actually produced the cigarettes. The American Tobacco Company, the successor to the Blackwell “Bull Durham” firm, imposed another division of labor when its officials resumed production of cigarettes in the 1910s. White men ran the making and packing machines, while white women assisted the men by “catching” and “weighing” cigarettes or operating the sealers. In the stemmeries, hand jobs were usually performed by black women, while black men hauled, lifted, and ran the shredding machines and presided over the blending and redrying operations. Such practices gave black women the overwhelming majority of jobs in the leaf and stemming departments, while black men were restricted to work as helpers, odd jobs, “floating gang labor,” and cleaners.
Although a few black men broke through the color line during wartime when labor was scarce, employers dismissed them after the war because the “public” opposed the opening of skilled work to blacks.26 The possibility of employing still lower-paid black women to operate machines did not occur to Durham employers, even though their presence on the same floor with white women might have proved less objectionable to whites. Apparently gender was more important than race in determining who should be allowed to operate machines.
There were important differences in the production processes of tobacco and textiles. The tobacco industry wholly incorporated the racial and gender hierarchy that placed white men on top and black women at the bottom. In textiles, however, production flowed horizontally. The industry lacked sharp distinctions between prefabrication and fabrication or between hand and machine labor; this fostered a less segmented and vertical labor process than in tobacco. While weavers, whose occupation lay at the center of textile production, might be men or women, operators of cigarette-making machines were almost exclusively white men. White women tobacco workers either operated auxiliary machines or assisted the men. Black workers also assisted or worked in prefabrication departments such as the stemmery. In hosiery, men were the knitters and women looped. In all three industries—textiles, hosiery, and tobacco—white men controlled the flow of material either through direct supervision or through work as loom or machine fixers.
Class also shaped the factory hierarchy. Management positions, particularly at the higher levels, were allotted to those with family connections, access to capital, and educational credentials readily available only to members of wealthier families. Although it was possible to rise from the ranks to become second hands, foremen, and supervisors, few men rose higher. The progress of Kemp P. Lewis, a college graduate in 1900, who worked his way up the Erwin organization to assume the presidency in the 1930s, exemplified the career pattern for management in the textile industry.27 American Tobacco and Liggett and Myers followed a similar model. American’s managers, however, unlike those at L and M, often were drawn from outside the South.
A visitor to a typical tobacco establishment in Durham might begin in the redrying plant, where black men fed the leaf into a redrying machine operated by white men. After the leaf was dried and cooled, black men would pack it into hogsheads and store them in warehouses for the two- to three-year ageing process. Aged tobacco was “rehandled” by black women “pickers” who untied the “hands” of tobacco, picked out trash and removed dust, and placed the leaves on a moving belt. Black female “orderers” tied the leaves on racks before steaming added moisture that permitted them to be stemmed without disintegrating. Then “shakers” shook out the leaves, “sorters” arranged them by size, and the leaves were stemmed. Black women usually stemmed the leaves when they were done by hand or fed the leaves into a stemming machine operated by a white man. After machine stemming, the leaves were inspected by black women who looked for ones that the machine had missed. Black men presided over the flavoring, blending, and shredding of the leaf. They then transported and perhaps fed the shredded leaf into the hopper of the cigarette-making machine, which was operated by a white man. A white woman, but sometimes a white man, caught the finished cigarettes, placed them in a tray, and sent them to the packing room. Before packing, white women would inspect, weigh, and count the cigarettes. White women or men would run the machines that wrapped the cigarettes in foil, then packed, sealed, labeled, and stamped them.28 An alert observer would note that the various tasks were assigned in accordance with traditional southern assumptions about gender and racial abilities.
The classification of tasks in the tobacco industry was a long-standing arrangement. Black women filled positions that they had begun to enter in the 1850s, if not earlier (see Table 14).29 Sketches of the performance of these tasks in 1900 or in 1880 could have been used to illustrate a monograph on antebellum industrial slavery. For that matter, the description in a 1907 U.S. Senate investigation of women and child wage-earners could have applied to Durham workers fifty years before:
The stemmers or strippers, who are usually women and children, sit at their work which consists of removing the stem and midrib of the leaf by hand . . . In some of the factories it tended to become a family occupation, mothers bringing their children or young workers, their younger brothers and sisters.30
Division of Labor between Black and White Female Tobacco Workers in Durham, 1900
*N = 99 women.
SOURCE: 12th Census of the United States, Population Schedules for Durham City and Suburbs of Durham, 1900, samples taken from Manuscript Census, National Archives (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques used).
Photographs of black women seated on boxes surrounded by a sea of dried tobacco leaves demonstrated that similar conditions continued into the 1920s, when a survey in Durham and Winston-Salem reported that blacks performed the unskilled labor and whites monopolized the cleaner, skilled machine work.31
A more detailed examination of the tobacco industry in 1935 also focused on the central role played by race and gender. The study noted the industry’s dependence on female labor and reported that more women than men relied on it for employment. The comparison between the division of labor in 1900 and in 1935 reveals a segmented labor process in which blacks were highly concentrated in a few areas, while white men, with a few rare exceptions, retained the skilled and supervisory work (see Tables 14 and 15).32
A range of attitudes about race and gender in the hosiery workplace is revealed by comparing a 1910 photograph of black female hosiery workers in a black-owned mill with descriptions of conditions in other Durham factories. In the black-owned mill, neatly dressed black women stand beside the machines they operated. Neatly, even fashionably dressed women and children sit sorting, turning, and folding the coarse work socks they produced. The black proprietors, dressed in starched wing collars, vests, and business suits, stand in the background, exuding an air of pride and respectability. This vignette from the short-lived black effort to compete with white capitalists portrays black women workers in dignified and self-respecting postures.33
The descriptions of black hosiery workers given by white supervisors in a Carr mill were generally negative. As in the black-owned mill, black women, now called “girls,” operated the machines that knitted either the tops or the feet of coarse socks. Although the tasks required considerable dexterity to ensure that the pieces could be joined, the foremen disparaged black women’s skills. One of the Carrs told a visitor, “Negroes have to be prodded all the time to keep up production and quality. They seem to lack a sense of reponsibility.” The supervisors described themselves as “kind but severe”; they took care that their workers would “know who is boss.”34
Yet the report of a young white woman also employed by the Carrs at another mill in the mid-1920s suggests that racial attitudes weren’t the only reason for the management’s condescending policy toward employees. The worker described a “horrible place” where women worked eleven hours a day perched on high stools while tobacco-impregnated saliva covered the floor. The women topper had to keep up with the male knitter, “and if you let a machine wait, of course he loses as well as you. I have sat half days at a time without even getting off my stool for water or anything in order to keep my machines from waiting.”35 According to Mollie Seagrove, who worked in the same mill, “We had a bossman, telling us what to do and what not to do. All men. I got along, the people that I worked with done pretty much like they were told . . . We never did have very much to say, we didn’t have much room to talk. We had to work. I just took it and did the best I could.”36 Subjected to the tyranny of machine-paced production and the authority of male managers, women were schooled to obey by employers who were determined to maintain strict factory discipline.
Specific Occupations of Tobacco Workers by Race, Sex, and Skill, 1935
SOURCE: Johnson, “The Tobacco Worker, A Study of Tobacco Factory Workers and Their Families,” 2 vols. (1935), Industrial Studies Section, Division of Review, NRA/NA, 1:26.
Although numerous studies describe the “average North Carolina textile mill,” no account has been found to describe a specific Durham example. In any event, the Durham mills are unlikely to have differed significantly from the ones whose portraits survive. From the picker room to the sewing room, between 25 and 50 percent of the occupations included males and females, but the rest were usually performed by members of a specific sex and age (see Table 16 for a typical division of labor for 1907). In the initial stage, white men and an occasional black man opened bales of cotton. White men then carded the fiber into loose strands. The next processes, performed by men and women, gradually drew the fiber into fine and tauter thread in a series of operations called drawing, slubbing, speeding, and roving. Then the yarn, now called roving, arrived in the spinning room where young girls presided in the early twentieth century, although older women gradually took their places by the 1930s. Boys, later replaced by young men, “doffed” the full bobbins of spun thread. Girls or women then ran the spoolers that wound the yarn from several bobbins into a single spool. Some of the spooled thread was moved to beam warpers before being inserted on the looms by females “drawing-in” the threads that would become the warp of woven cloth. Other spools were placed on the looms to supply the threads that would be the woof or filling for the cloth. Weavers, men or women, operated the looms. Subsidiary occupations kept the looms supplied with full bobbins. The loom fixers undertook the important task of keeping the looms in working condition. Then the cloth was inspected, cut, sewed, and packed for shipment. A few black men might work as laborers outside the mill, hauling bales of cotton or bundles of cloth, but only white men and women were employed in the rest of the operation before the Second World War. White male overseers, second hands, and section hands presided over them.37 But the real power over the company’s operations resided above them, in the main office where men like W. A. Erwin and K. P. Lewis worked.
Gender and Age Division of Labor in North Carolina Textiles, 1907
*Carders, pickers, slash tenders, loom fixers, supervisors.
†Creelers, beamers, spare hands, drawing-in hands, battery fillers, cloth room hands.
SOURCE: U.S. Senate, “The Cotton Textile Industry,” vol. 1 in Report on the Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, 61st Cong., 2d Sess. (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1910).
▪ Gender and race remained constant organizing principles in the industrial workplace, but the production process itself was continually subject to change. Impelled by the desire to compete and maximize profits, officials often introduced technological or managerial innovations that disrupted established patterns of work. These pressures forced managers to treat employees like “a part of the machinery which they operate,” and parts could be changed or discarded as desired.38 “The paternalistic personal style of management” that characterized factory operations in the 1880s and 1890s was gradually replaced by a “formal disciplined bureaucracy”; this process evolved out of the very success of a corporation as it expanded its production and its labor force.39 A new generation of officials undermined the paternalist system built by the company founders. Economic crises and consequent layoffs also loosened the bonds between workers and employers.
The initial skirmish in a series of battles over control of the pace of work, job conditions, and hiring practices occurred in the tobacco factories in Durham in the early mid-1880s. The very decision to begin the manufacture of cigarettes necessitated a change in labor, bringing skilled white craftsmen in Durham factories for the first time. To cut costs, the Dukes and Carr tried to use the craftsmen to train local workers, but the slow pace of hand production frustrated their efforts. The Dukes successfully turned to mechanization and thereby solved problems of production and simultaneously eliminated the troublesome craftsmen. White women then entered the industry as a preferred source of labor.
After a period of relative peace, another conflict between workers and managers erupted in West Durham in 1900. Workers who assumed that they had the same right to organize as their employers learned about the realities of unequal power. Having observed the workers’ defeat as a boy, the novelist Ernest Seeman later evoked the “bitter feeling of failure and frustration” pervading the crowd of evicted and hungry Erwin workers. The “deep dark shadow-stream of stench and curse” that flowed through the workers’ “nights and days of bitterness” darkened his own feelings for the city and its industrial patriarchs.40 But W. A. Erwin sensed only victory in his relentless crushing of the union. Relative calm once again returned to Durham’s industrial communities.
The labor shortages precipitated by the First World War caused another upsurge in worker rebelliousness. Aware of their enhanced bargaining power and determined to force wages to keep pace with inflation, workers again tried to organize in Durham’s textile and tobacco factories. When the post-war recession aided employer resistance, the workers fell silent once more. But the silence was soon broken in the mid-1920s when the Marvin Carr silk strike and the arrival of a unionized construction firm to build Duke University gave new impetus to organizing activities in Durham. The renewal of activism was only a prelude to a long period of open and covert battles between workers and managers in all three major Durham industries.
Conflicts in the textile industry were precipitated by management efforts to apply new methods developed in northern industries and business training schools. The prolonged crisis afflicting the industry had persuaded managers that reforms were essential for survival. In the early 1920s, Kemp P. Lewis of Erwin Mills and Julian S. Carr, Jr., tried offering workers incentives, improved recreational facilities, bonuses, and the industrial democracy plan established at Durham Hosiery Mills. As the crisis intensified, they exhorted their employees to give them “absolute cooperation” in a perilous situation that Lewis compared to war. Supervisors took courses in “modern production methods” and psychological techniques to keep workers “satisfied in the mill and in the homes.”41
After the strike at the Carr Silk Mill in 1925, Durham’s leading industrialists also combined in a secret alliance to combat union organizers. A strike at nearby Henderson in 1927 led the three companies to share the same industrial espionage agent in the 1927–1929 period. Beyond spying on workers, the alliance used bribery and an informant within the Tobacco Workers International Union at Winston-Salem fifty miles away to blunt the organizing of tobacco workers in Durham. The flamboyant campaign launched by Alfred Hoffman, an organizer sent by the national hosiery and textile workers unions to Durham in 1927, undoubtedly encouraged the local companies to close ranks.
As the crisis in the textile industry deepened in the late 1920s, K. P. Lewis and other manufacturers turned to modernizing the work process. Soon after a new system was introduced in the weave room at Erwin Mill No. 1, the weavers petitioned the management for the “same prices with the system as we received while the old system was in operation.”42 In effect, they were asking for the same sort of consideration from their employer that their employer had long demanded from them. The company declined the workers’ request, which ran counter to the aim of reducing labor costs. By 1931 the new system also increased the workload for loom fixers, although it spared the women who worked as spinners because their low wages made human labor cheaper than new machinery. Such changes and the high-handed way in which they were introduced led to discontent among a previously loyal force.
Given the great financial resources available to the tobacco industry, tobacco workers faced even more rapid changes to accustomed patterns of working. Cigarette companies could afford to introduce new machinery as soon as the prototypes were invented. When the American Tobacco Company built a new plant in Durham in 1929, other companies were forced to invest in new machinery to keep pace.43 Once again, technological change and managerial strategy affected the labor force. White workers began to be displaced or, if fortunate enough to keep their jobs, were forced to work faster. Black women, on the other hand, saw an increased demand for their labor but found themselves being paid lower wages for more work. Both groups of workers entered the 1930s with a growing distrust of their employers’ motives and a deepening resentment over policies that treated them “like a part of the machinery.”44
Although the economic health of the major Durham industries was strikingly dissimilar after the national economy plunged into the Depression, the companies continued to apply similar managerial methods. Ironically, the reforms implemented under the National Recovery Administration (NRA) accelerated the replacement of human labor with machines. Although the codes set up for the tobacco and textile industries allowed employers to pay southern workers at lower rates than northern workers and to pay lower wages for jobs held by blacks, minimum wage levels and maximum hours for the work week made mechanization attractive. Reacting to these pressures and to the example of Durham firms that collapsed (such as the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company, the oldest textile mill, and Durham Hosiery Mills), K. P. Lewis insisted that Erwin Mills keep abreast of all technological and managerial trends. If Erwin did not, he warned the company’s stockholders, it would have “more trouble fighting competition than ever before in our history.” After bringing time-study men into the mills, Lewis ordered new machinery and reorganized the work process to increase individual workloads. When workers responded with protests and walkouts, Lewis insisted on management’s right to control production and issued stern lectures to the now enraged employees.45
In addition to the increasing speed of production in the late 1920s, tobacco workers faced employers ready to take advantage of the high rate of unemployment. A company memo issued by American Tobacco instructed its foremen not to “let sympathy” or a worker’s long service persuade them to keep on a person “too old to be efficient.”46 Foremen, never known for their genteel language, used more brutal expressions in their efforts to accelerate production. They punished workers who produced flawed products with fines and with temporary or permanent layoffs. Complaints were often met with the suggestion that the dissatisfied could go elsewhere. Whether fueled by desperation or a desire to reap the full benefits of a strong industry in a weak economy, these company policies resulted in rising discontent among workers.
▪ Workers’ assumptions about their rights influenced the way they adapted to managerial power. Whether they acquiesced, rebelled, or broke beneath the strain depended upon expectations grounded in the past. Some workers, particularly middle-aged white men, could remember a greater “liberty of action” in the rural countryside.47 Now they had to relinquish to company officials what little independence and control over their families they had enjoyed. Children and women, already accustomed to male control, made the transition to factory labor more easily than could adult men. The image of the thin-skinned, hot-headed, “’pore’ but proud” millworker, prone to quit at the slightest infringement of his self-respect, entered the industrial lore side-by-side with an antithetical stereotype, that of the shiftless, broken-down male parasite living off the earnings of his wife and children.48 Blacks, already innured to limited autonomy, were better prepared for a system in which “white folks are going to always want to be over you.” Foremen demonstrated their power by attempting to “fumble your behind,” by invading women’s restrooms to roust out black women who had lingered too long, and by denying black women a “Miss” or a “Mrs.” before their first names. Black women had to “press hard to hold yourself up” against overbearing supervisors and public opinion that classified tobacco workers as a “rough” lower class of people.49 Defending one’s self-respect risked the loss of a job. Some rebels resisted the degradation inherent in working “under a white boss,” but they rarely kept a foothold in factories. After a fight with his first supervisor in a Durham tobacco factory, Rufus Mebane suspected that a “blacklist” kept him from securing another “public job.” His wife, who accepted her situation at L and M without question or challenge, supported the Mebanes by her earnings.50 The awareness that their families needed their wages encouraged everyone, even white men, to accept factory discipline. An old woman, recalling her feelings about beginning at Erwin Mills when she was nine years old, said, “Did I like my work? Yes, I liked it! I had to like it. I had to work.”51
That women who arrived at Durham factories were more accommodating than men was probably an accurate reflection of their powerlessness. Yet some women were able to withhold their labor, thus enhancing their bargaining position. These women could more easily avoid a double or triple day; that is, simultaneous responsibility for wage labor, domestic labor, and reproductive activities. White women worked for shorter periods and with less frequency than black women (see Tables 17 and 18). The higher wages paid to white male workers were obviously an important contributing factor. The effect of cultural inhibitions is more difficult to substantiate but undoubtedly kept some women out of the labor market. Over time, the need for wages to support the family apparently diminished the reluctance to send white females into the labor force, but proportional differences between white and black female labor continued. Moreover, female employment in Durham exceeded the national averages of 20 percent in 1900 and 23.6 percent in 1930 by more than 20 percentage points even among white women.52 The “family wage” enabling a male breadwinner to keep his wife out of the labor force did not exist for the majority of Durham women.
Percentages of Females Employed in Durham, 1880–1930
*1930 figures for females aged 15 and older.
SOURCE: 10th, 12th, 15th Censuses of the United States, 1880 and 1900 sampled from (manuscript) Population Schedules for Durham and Durham suburbs, National Archives; 1930 figures from U.S. Bureau of the Census, Occupations, vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1933) (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques used).
Characteristics of Employed Females in Durham and Suburbs, 1900
SOURCE: 12th Census of the United States (manuscript) Population Schedules, Samples for Durham and Its Suburbs, National Archives. (See Appendix for description of sampling techniques used.)
In truth, wage levels in Durham were abysmally low. In 1890 the average male operative received an annual wage of $274, adult females $163, and children $93. The presence of large numbers of extremely low-paid black tobacco workers brought the wage levels for that industry still lower: men earned $212 a year, women $111, and children $66. Ten years later the wage levels had declined at both the city and state level; an influx of desperate tenants and indebted farmers had presented employers with enough labor to reduce their payrolls. Now Durham’s adult male operatives earned $258, adult women earned $154, and children under fourteen earned $95. At the state level, tobacco wages had fallen to $166 for men, and risen to $140 for women and $70 for children. The state’s textile workers were receiving $216 for men, about forty dollars less than the average Durhamite and about the same as the Durham wage for women and children. At these levels, the pooling of income became an economic imperative, transforming the family wage into the family wage-earning economy of two, three, or four workers per family.53
In the early twentieth century, after industrial expansion had absorbed the readily available labor supply, wage levels rose slightly. Wage schedules for the hosiery, textile, and bag workers employed at Golden Belt in Durham in 1904 averaged $320 per year for adult men, $220 for adult women, and $130 for children under the age of sixteen for a work week of sixty-six hours (see Table 19). Even so, these low wages meant that a family needed at least three members in the mill to achieve a modest income of less than $600 per year.54
Although no wage data differentiating the earnings of black and white tobacco workers are available before the late 1920s, black workers always earned less. A black household might send three or four wage-earners into the tobacco factories and still live less well than white textile workers who enjoyed subsidized housing and other amenities available in the typical Durham mill village. Black households, especially those headed by women, found that sending “every hand old enough in the family to work” was an economic necessity.55 Despite the rise in wage levels during the early 1900s and the period of war-induced labor scarcity, even more privileged households headed by white males found it difficult to live on the income generated by a single person. As industrial wages spiraled downward in the 1920s and early 1930s, the three- or four-wage-earner household persisted as an economic imperative for many families. Census data for 1930 covering households of all occupational categories in Durham revealed that only 37.7 percent of black households subsisted on one wage-earner’s income, compared to 53.7 percent of white households. The same data disclosed that 21 percent of Durham’s black households and 15.8 percent of its white families placed three or more wage-earners in the paid workforce.56 However, the impact of the prolonged textile crisis and the onset of the Great Depression makes this data harder to analyze. It is impossible to decide whether the households were expressing their preferences or were prevented by low demand from sending more members out to earn wages. In any case, the cost of living, estimated at more than $1,400 for the average family in the early 1930s, could not be reached unless parents and children sought employment and pooled their wages. In August 1932, Erwin workers earned an average of 25 cents per hour, or an annual income of less than $700 if they worked a full fifty-five hour week, fifty weeks a year. Predominantly female job categories varied between the 20 cents an hour paid to spinners and inspectors to the 30 cents an hour paid to weavers; male occupations received from 21 cents an hour for new workers employed as oilers to the 40 cents paid to loom fixers. Many textile and hosiery workers lost their jobs altogether when some Durham companies collapsed during the prolonged crisis of the 1920s and 1930s.
Golden Belt Manufacturing Company Wages, 1904
SOURCE: Manuscript Census Data for Week of 17 Sept. 1904, p. 4. Copy possessed by Southern Oral History Program, Durham Files, Department of History, University of North Carolina. Average weekly wage is calculated from this data.
By the mid-1930s, Durham workers employed in the “depression-proof” cigarette industry, who earned the highest average annual wages paid to white men, still required two wage-earners in a household to secure a modest standard of living. Annual incomes for white men reached $726, white women earned $646, black men $543, and black females, more frequently unemployed, $430.57 The work assigned to particular racial and gender groups explained the differences. Jobs usually given to black men, such as “pack-up boy,” “job hand,” “lump capper,” or “sacker,” paid 30 to 32 cents an hour in 1934, or $600 a year for full-time work. White women’s usual jobs as “catchers,” “weigh girls,” “sealing wrappers,” or “relief girls” yielded annual wages of between $600 and $720 a year, while the highest paid woman, the inspector, earned about $800—compared with the $1,000 that a white male inspector took home for similar duties. The white men who ran the making machines took home only slightly less than male inspectors, since at 45 cents an hour, their annual income amounted to $900. Black women, however, in their most typical job category as stemmers, received $375 a year. Since much stemming was seasonal, these wages were subject to more frequent interruptions than in the more stable parts of the production process.58
Industrialization affected everyone in Durham, but it seems to have led more white women than black into the labor force. Before tobacco factories began recruiting white females in the 1880s and before textile mills existed, the figures from the 1880 census reported that very few white females worked (see Table 18). By that year, black women had begun working in the local tobacco factories, but the majority were employed elsewhere. By 1900, as traced by the remarkable rise in white female employment, white girls and young women had entered the factories of the Dukes and the Carrs to work as packers, stampers, inspectors, and operators for the now-mechanized production of tobacco bags. White girls and women had also found jobs as spinners, weavers, speeders, creelers, doffers, beamers, spoolers, warpers, and winders in the local textile mills. The manufacture of hosiery also offered work to white women and, after 1904, offered limited employment to black women. Black female employment in the tobacco industry had grown in response to the stepped-up pace of production, which demanded a larger quantity of stemmed tobacco. In addition, other women continued to work at home assembling tobacco bags—a process that had entered the Durham vernacular as “tagging the bulls,” because each bag was completed by attaching a Bull Durham emblem to the string. White women and some girls also supplemented their income in this way.
There seems a clear connection between the demographic characteristics of women workers and industrial employment (see Table 18). More than 60 percent of all black female tobacco workers were under twenty, and more than 70 percent of all white female tobacco workers were under twenty-five. White females in the textile industry were still more youthful: almost 90 percent were younger than twenty-five in 1900. When all working women were considered, industrial and nonindustrial alike, the average age began to rise: fewer than 35 percent of all black women workers were younger than twenty; more than 32 percent of white female wage-earners were older than twenty-five. The overall age structure of white working women, however—but not black working women—closely approximated that for industry. Once again, it seems that white women’s employment was more influenced by industrial demand. If we compare the percentage of industrial jobs to the total jobs held by female workers, the same result appears: 17 percent of black jobs compared with 44 percent of white. A higher proportion of black women changed occupations over their lifetimes, while white women, after a short period in a textile, hosiery, or tobacco factory, concentrated on their own households.
White women, protected by white male earnings, were employed chiefly between puberty and their mid-twenties. In their old age, even as widows, white women were less likely then black women to seek paid employment. By contrast, black women’s employment usually extended from early puberty to old age and was only marginally eased during the childrearing years. For white females, the factory was a relatively attractive way to support themselves or contribute to their family’s income before setting up housekeeping with their husbands. Black women also preferred factory work. The combined effect of racial and gender subordination was to reduce their choices to those between back-breaking factory labor or domestic drudgery in white households. A scene outside the American Tobacco plant in the late 1940s captures the reality of white power. A white official emerged to observe the job seekers, who stood in a broiling sun hoping to secure a temporary position. The man, said a young girl who was there to seek her first job in the factory, smiled in satisfaction to behold “the sea of black women struggling forward, trying to get a job in his factory” (my emphasis).59
Less visible than the exploitation of black women by white employers was the gradual convergence of black and white women’s participation in the labor force. True, black women were hired only on the “tobacco side” while white women monopolized the jobs on the “cigarette side,” but by the 1930s both groups were more likely to be married women in their middle years. White women as well as black were balancing fulltime occupations as paid workers, housewives, and (in many cases) mothers. The demographic characteristics for both Durham’s and North Carolina’s female textile and tobacco workers from 1930, 1935, and 1940 reflected the same trend (see Tables 20 and 21). In part this trend represented a shift of wage-earning work from the shoulders of the young, including children, to their mothers. Child labor, under pressure from legislative controls, increased technological complexity, and progressive reform movements, began to disappear from the official payroll records, if not from the actual workplace, by 1919 (see Table 22).60 As child labor declined, the percentage of females older than fifteen began to rise. Apparently the fall in wage levels after the brief wartime surge encouraged more women to take industrial jobs. In 1900, 40 percent of Durham’s female wage-earners had worked in manufacturing; by 1930 that figure had climbed to 55 percent. Although the percentage of Durham’s total female employment had not increased by the 1930s (a time of high unemployment, after all), the women who retained their jobs were more mature and experienced (see Table 21). Jobs had become more precious in a time of economic insecurity. In 1934, for example, the average white male tobacco worker had experienced 5.5 weeks of unemployment, the average black male tobacco worker 8.3 weeks, the average white female tobacco worker 8 weeks, and the average black female tobacco worker 11.8
Marital and Age Status of the Female Workforce in North Carolina Tobacco, Hosiery, and Textile Industries, 1920–1940*
SOURCE: U.S. Census of Population, 14th, 15th , 16th Censuses, 1920, vol. 4, Occupations; 1930, vol. 4, Occupations; 1940, vol. 3, The Labor Force (see Appendix for publication information).
Status of Female Tobacco Workers in Durham Factories, 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/DC, 1:386, 390–91, 398.
weeks. Less than 50 percent of black workers and 40 percent of white workers believed that their jobs were secure.61 In this fashion, the 1930s saw the emergence of a biracial, female industrial working class whose commitment to paid employment more closely resembled the male pattern.62 While black and white women continued to work in different places and assume different family responsibilities, their experience of class relationships in the formal workplace had become increasingly similar. The wage-earning couple was becoming the core of the working-class family economy in Durham.63 As elsewhere in North Carolina, black and white women traveled daily between their paid and unpaid workplaces. Perhaps their journeys had finally brought them to a common destination.
Percentages of Women and Children in the Industrial Labor Force in Durham, 1880–1938
SOURCE: 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th U.S. Censuses of Manufacturing, 1880–1930. Figures for 1880–1900 are for Durham County; figures for 1909–1938 are for Durham City (see Appendix for publication information). 1938 figures from North Carolina Departments of Conservation and Development and of Labor, Industrial Directory and Reference Book of the State of North Carolina (Washington, D.C.: Works Project Administration, 1938).
▪ Measured against any objective criterion—occupation, income, workplace, economic position, actual or potential husbands—working women in Durham had been members of an industrial working class since the 1880s. If they earned wages only for brief periods, they lived off the wages of husbands, fathers, brothers, or children while caring for present and future workers. Owning no property, not even the houses in which they lived, they embodied the classical definition of an industrial proletariat. They lived by selling their labor power or by sharing in the income generated by other workers’ sales of their only valuable commodity. Employers paid them considerably less than the value of their product, and profited from their unremunerated labor in the household, which kept down the cost of subsistence.64 Exploitation in Marxist (and some non-Marxist) senses was clearly their lot.65
Moreover, these women lived in relatively close contact with their employers. They could see, in the words of one child worker at Erwin Mills, that the “mill officials didn’t live as we did, that there were different standards of living, and that, although wages were not raised, the mill was making money.” They experienced the snobbery of “certain people because they had money and we had none.”66 Some inhabitants of West Durham found a way to ridicule such snobbery. “Monkey Top” was their name for the Erwin mansion that their employers called “Hilltop.” Towering over West Durham and the hollow area called “Monkey Bottoms,” where the outcasts of the mill village were exiled, “Monkey Top” signified both awareness and disdain for the powerful men who controlled their lives. Some workers, particularly those employed by Erwin Mills, were subject to the “sedative effects of paternalism,” which sought to transform “power relationships” into “moral” obligations between benevolent superiors and deferential subordinates.67 The sting in the subordinates’ humor suggested that even industrial paternalism could not stifle a knowledge of the “boundaries between them and us.”68 If so, then Durham possessed the raw materials for an “active and conscious conflict” between the classes.69
Yet, “raw material” does not by itself create class consciousness.70 When the issue concerns black and white working-class women in the South, the complications multiply. These women’s identities were rooted in three coexisting sets of relationships: sex, race, and class. Each relationship conditioned the others and, as a consequence, the boundaries between “them and us” were elastic. Inequality between the sexes, the races, and the classes was usually portrayed as the natural result of moral, biological, or racial differences.71 The prevailing exchange between the social groups was often defined as legitimate—“free and fair.”72 In this context, black and white working-class women had difficulty perceiving the parallels in their common situation.73 Although manufacturers generally exploited racial antagonisms, the peculiar history of the South aided their efforts. Furthermore, women’s domestic responsibilities tended to isolate them from formal or informal discussions that can create a sense of common identity. Women remained closely tied to the private, “natural” household headed by a male who served as his family’s intermediary with the public world.74
Workers’ comments about factory life afford us glimpses into how they perceived their experiences. In some cases, these exercises in “self-discovery” (a term borrowed from Karl Mannheim) led them to embrace one or another form of group consciousness (e.g., class, race). Sometimes the worker defined her identity by membership in some other group, such as the respectable, God-fearing people—or the converse. Others, avoiding social categories altogether, emphasized their identity as wives, daughters, parents, pragmatic survivors, or solitary rebels. Unfortunately, the historical record before the practice of oral history records little of women’s perceptions. The available sources from the 1880s to the turn of the century reveal the sentiments of male workers but not those of young white or black women. Thereafter, the records become more inclusive, but are still weighted toward the male perspective. Even oral histories, despite earnest efforts, sometimes fail to topple the social barriers between interviewer and subject. Black people and white women demonstrated particular reticence in interviews conducted by comparative strangers, particularly if the stranger also differed in race or sex.75 Nevertheless, oral history adds immeasurably to sometimes skimpy written sources.
Although women do not speak for themselves in sources from the 1880s and 1890s, the documents disclose the conflicts that enveloped workers as they dealt with the disruption imposed by mechanized production. In the mid-1880s the skilled handworkers imported from New York and their like-minded Southern colleagues sent bulletins northward warning about the “horrors of the Bonsack cigarette-making machine” that “takes the bread out of our mouths.”76 By the late 1880s, other male craftsmen joined in protest over the “condition of working people” in Durham, which was “rapidly growing worse on account of the rapid introduction of laborsaving machinery.” Another man, who condemned the system that put “women and children of many families” to work “while the men are unemployed,” revealed the contradictions of the crisis. Other statements added a new dimension. A black brickmason referred to the “despotism on the part of those mechanics who like to employ all white men and not give the colored mechanic a fair showing”; a white man lamented that “the laboring people are at war with each other.”77 This man added his hope that workers would eventually recognize their common interests, although the bulk of testimony into the twentieth century suggests that they never did.
By the early twentieth century, the record began to reveal the opinions of women. Their observations offer clues concerning the absence of worker rebelliousness. Survival itself often absorbed all their energies; one black man recalled his early childhood:
The winter was so bad, they couldn’t get no wood and coal in, so she’d go way back yonder where that hosiery mill used to be and work. We children would be wrapped up in bed, and she’d come back with a great pan of food and stuff. There used to be a hosiery mill right there on the corner of Duke Street. They worked night and day. She’d work over there and come in at night.78
The reactions voiced by some Durham mothers and children to the child labor law in 1918 conveyed a matter-of-fact understanding of their economic situation. A white mother told a government investigator:
When you’re raisin’ children you ought to work them all you can. Heap of them marry before they’re 14 . . . A child of 10 or 11 years old ought to work in [the] mill—raised myself to work ever since I was 9 years old. It’s no more harm to work in the mill than loaf on streets.79
Mary Mebane described the way her mother adapted to factory life:
This was her routine—fixed, without change, unvarying. And she accepted it. She more than accepted it, she embraced it; it gave meaning to her life, it was what she had been put here on this earth to do. It was not to be questioned. To Nonnie this life was ideal; she saw nothing wrong with it. And she wondered in baffled rage why her daughter didn’t value it but rather sought something else, some other rhythm, a more meaningful pattern to human life.
Other children more readily complied with their parents’ wishes—believing, as Theotis Williamson did, that “people just should be satisfied with what they get.”80 Having accustomed themselves to limited choices, many women instilled the same resignation in their children.
Women who never learned as children that they were “bound to work or starve to death” could acquire that knowledge as adults. Annie Mack Barbee, the child of a family who came to Durham out of rebellion against white racial domination in rural South Carolina, felt that entering into a Durham tobacco factory had led her into a trap from which she never escaped:
But a young woman going in a place like that to work, you never get anywhere in your goals, you just get up there and work and then it becomes habit forming. You just work, work. A lot of ‘em did . . . It’s all right to go there and get some money for awhile but once you get there and get stuck, you don’t try to go nowhere, you just stay there.81
The “urgency of livelihood” and the fear of reprisals led many to censor their thoughts in order to keep their jobs. Soon, the acceptance of “humbling” became second nature.82 Factory life tended to reinforce parental lessons concerning the dangers of rebellion or anger. Resentments, if allowed to surface, could lead to arguments between workers or to open defiance of a supervisor. Intense heat and humidity in the mill or factory did not help. Fights broke out. Sometimes knives were drawn. Jessie Ervin described an incident that began with a dispute between a female weaver and a battery hand, and ended when the battery hand “cut another man that wasn’t even involved in it.” She added, “It didn’t happen very often, [but] sometime a very small incident like that will trigger a big bang.” Fighting sometimes cost women their jobs and, as one woman remarked, “the times would be very tight then.”83 Some workers harassed their own subordinates as a way to relieve frustration. Others chose an approach that allowed them to vent their feelings and also win favors. They were the “white man niggers,” “stool pigeons” who told management about the transgressions of their fellow workers; some of these “thought the overseer was a little tin god.” These workers helped management “keep tabs,” and “tended to your morals and everything else.”84 Claiborne Peavey recalled how supervisors used high unemployment in the 1930s to silence discontented workers: “If you went up to the foreman, he’d fire you, if he wanted to. When I sued to try to get a raise, he’d tell me, there’s people out there in the street who’ll work for less than I’m paying you.”85 A still more vulnerable black stemmer, after calling her foreman “as fine a white man as I ever seen to work for,” added, “I’m looking to be laid off any time. I certainly am worried ‘cause I ain’t got nobody, not a soul in the world. They liable to tell you to go home any time. I been lookin’ for it.” Since doing what you were told and working for a white man offered the only job security, it was not surprising that many workers accepted “their ill fortune when it came as lamentable but unavoidable.”86
The popular belief that tobacco and textile workers deserved their fate because they lacked the character or intelligence to do anything else increased the difficulties of developing pride or group solidarity. Some workers separated themselves from others by stressing their superior morals, their better education, or some other symbol of prestige. A black schoolteacher, working at American during the green season, “earned the wrath of the whole floor” by her airs and threats to inform on “one of the ‘girls’ for not doing her job properly.” Other black workers responded to a negative stereotype by fulfilling it. They boasted about their sexual prowess and carried themselves in such a way that coworkers and bosses alike understood that they weren’t to be “messed” with.87 Although the sheer numbers of workers in Durham sheltered them from some of the snobbery prevalent in a city like Raleigh, where “the people . . . in town didn’t have anything to do with the textile people,” ranking systems still persisted. One white daughter hated the summer she worked beside her mother at L and M because “some people who knew that you worked in a factory might look down on you.”88 She took advantage of the high school education she had received in the Methodist orphanage to become a clerical worker. Similarly, a woman who resented the snubs of townspeople looked down on the “low-grade people” who lived in Monkey Bottoms.89 White women at L and M described themselves as a “higher class” of people than those who worked at American, where a few women were rumored to trade sexual favors for better treatment on the job.90 Workers thereby assuaged their own humiliations while reinforcing the power of their employers.
Racial antagonisms drew white workers toward their employers while teaching black workers to distrust all whites, regardless of class. Men were involved in the most explosive episodes. Charlie Decoda Mack, a black worker at L and M in the late 1920s, remembered working “with a cracker and they loved to put their foot in your tail and laugh. I told him once, ‘You put your foot in my tail again ever and I’ll break your leg.’” Yet blacks did not maintain a united front in the face of white oppression. “We have a lot of white man niggers up there. You do something in the street and he know it Monday what you done out there. That’s Uncle Tom folks.”91 But women did not avoid racial conflicts. Constantly abused verbally by a white coworker, a black woman at American finally responded to her attacker, “You’d be a son-of-a-bitch if your feet matched.” Laughter silenced her antagonist. A white woman who betrayed her sisterly regard for her black coworkers earned the epithet of “nigger lover” and learned to keep her heretical views to herself.92 Black workers in one Durham factory believed that white workers had conspired to get one of their number fired because he owned a later model car than whites liked for a black man to own. Whites expressed satisfaction with black workers as long as they weren’t “impudent” and “did what they were told” without argument. White feelings of superiority were reinforced by factory etiquette that forbade the use of titles before a black worker’s name, approved the use of “boy” and “girl” to address them, assigned them separate and usually inferior facilities, and gave them menial jobs in any area where they might coexist with whites. The general white insistence on keeping blacks firmly beneath them taught most blacks to “know white people—and the best way is to have nothing to do with them.”93
Even so there were developments that countered the tendency toward fragmentation on the basis of race or other competing loyalties. Despite all attempts to deflect workers’ attention from their class identity, discontent continued to produce an awareness of class inequities. In the early years, desires among white male workers to “do something and be somebody” could be satisfied by promoting them to the managerial ranks, but the new emphasis on hiring college-educated men set limits on that solution. Education might offer some working-class children an escape from the factory but few parents could afford the sacrifice. Shifting from one mill to another was a way “to get away from the sordidness of things,” but the move offered more novelty than dramatic improvement.94 As paternalist bonds began to fray during the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, workers discovered that they were expendable in the eyes of a more distant management.95 The sale of mill village houses, a practice begun by the financially troubled Durham Hosiery Mills, made visible the erosion of personal ties between company and employee.96 In West Durham the death of “daddy” Erwin and the accession of “businessman” Lewis symbolized the growing estrangement between restless, discontented workers and an anxious management determined to survive the economic crisis. Finding that maintaining the “personal element” imposed too many restrictions on their freedom to act, Durham’s managerial class placed their faith in mechanization and bureaucratic controls.97
The passing of industrial paternalism coincided with growing restrictions on migration as a way for workers to improve working conditions. As layoffs, wage cuts, and short work weeks undercut job security, white workers shared in the insecurity previously reserved for black workers. Those who had jobs considered themselves lucky. Quitting, once a bold gesture of defiance, now verged on the suicidal. Aware of their new power, supervisors became increasingly abusive. Even when curse words, “bawling out,” and occasional kicks were not company policy, the relentless pressure of faster-paced machinery forced workers to meet steadily rising production quotas. Blacks continued to endure more rigorous supervision. One embittered white worker observed, “They like the nigger better, pay him less, treat him worse, kick and curse him around, and the nigger’ll take it.”98 The painful irony of the Depression meant that the white worker in the 1930s faced a similar deterioration and she was also expected to “take it.”
Government sponsored minimum wages and maximum hours favored the replacement of human labor by machines. A black stemmer at L and M reported on changes in her factory:
They put in all them automatic jacks and things since I been there. That’s why they cuts off so many people. They got machines there, I don’t know their names, but I hear them say they got machines there that do as much stemming as twenty people. I’ll tell you, don’t write this down, I don’t think it’s right to put in them machines to take work away from us poor people.99
The faster work speed increased tensions. According to a fixer, the pressure wracked up the nerves of the white female packers at L and M: he reported that “they jump all to pieces” when spoken to unexpectedly. Another fixer, employed in a Durham stemmery, described black women “pressed to make $10 a week”:
This 12,000 an hour on No. 1 bright tobacco is compulsory. They have got to produce that or find out why. And, if that machine was properly fixed and properly adjusted, and I O.K. it, she has got to do it or she has one more hour to hold her job, one hour. That is a fact. Any time that any woman is supposed to perform her duties does that, they do not argue. They are out the door.100
Remembering the same era, a white woman expressed the anguish she felt as a male coworker sobbed while being reprimanded harshly by a supervisor. He couldn’t reply to the foreman because he needed his job. A supervisor threatened a cigarette inspector at L and M, “Damn your soul, if you don’t watch your work, I’ll kick your fanny off,” in the presence of her shocked coworkers and her husband.101 Although the level of personal invective was lower in the textile industry, workers grappled with demands of the “stretch-out system,” which increased the workload without increasing the pay. Petitions described the “load they have on them and the speed with which the machinery runs” and asked Lewis to “meet us half way,” but there were no positive changes. If the death of W. A. Erwin had represented the end of paternalism, the Depression blew away the last lingering faith in that system.102
While employers might have been able to suppress employee protest by exploitation of the labor surplus and the skillful use of reprisals, they faced yet another source of danger. Now, as the public lost faith in business leaders, an activist administration had taken control of the federal government and sought to balance the interests of workers against those of management. Durham workers seized the chance. A cutter at L and M wrote a letter directly to President Roosevelt complaining about managerial practices:
And if we don’t run good, they are ready to bless us out. They are putting in some new improved machinery and speeding that. Please help us if you will for they are making millions and millions of clear profit every year. They tear machines up and put them back down in the same place so as to keep from paying so much income tax. Please do not let any one see this letter for if they found out I wrote you, they would fire me before dinner tommorrow. Burn this letter up after you have read it. If you don’t think that I am telling the pure facks, let one of your men investigate it. This is at Liggett and Myers. Please forgive bad writing and spelling. H. C. Hall103
Disgruntled black women, disappointed in the inadequacies of the National Recovery Administration code for the tobacco industry, directed their complaints to researchers sent by the NRA into Durham in 1935:
NRA or no NRA, they are not going to give us the money we earn. The firm would do anything to keep you from getting that $14.00 a week. Do you know you’re subject to get fired for any little thing? They will send you home for 10 days or three weeks if you stem over 20 pounds . . . If you are doing more than they want to pay you for, the boss will come around and find all manner of fault and act just as hateful as he can. That makes you nervous and scared and then you naturally can’t do as well and that naturally makes you slower.104
More ominous in the eyes of the Durham employers was the section in the NRA act that pledged government protection for the right of workers to organize. If workers began to believe that the law of the land supported them, what could stop them from bargaining for higher wages and even skimming a share of decision-making power?
Growing estrangement induced even once loyal workers to devise schemes against their adversaries. The repertoire of sly tricks, mutual self-protection, and subtle defiance helped them to resist the bullying supervisor or the relentless pace of the machine. As Jessie Ervin observed, Erwin workers found ingenious ways to “beat the clock” used to time their movements:
Believe you me, they learned ways to beat. They could do something to the clock to make it go as fast as all get out. Run that loom without a warp on it, and make the clock run, different gimmicks. I never did go in for that sort of thing myself, much. It was too much trouble for one thing; for another, I was usually on an hourly job.105
Humor could serve as a weapon for the quick-witted. Reprimanded for having shut down her machine to go to the toilet, a white American worker told her boss, “If the Lord had intended me to ask permission, he’d have put a stop watch on my you-know-what.”106 The thrill of that moment remained with one worker who’d heard the retort more than forty years before. Explaining how her coworkers would “carry” a slower colleague, Mary Bailey recalled one moment of triumph:
My bossman called me one night when we were going out to supper. He said, “Mary, you know some of them people you’re working with ain’t doing nothing. You’re doing their work and yours, too. How come you don’t tell me?” I said, “Listen, you didn’t hire me to tell you who was working and who wasn’t working. You hired me to work. Now if you want to know about them people not working, you look and see for yourself, cause I ain’t telling you nothing.” He told all the rest of the bossmen, “You needn’t ask Mary nothing, cause she ain’t gonna tell you nothing.” I laughed and he laughed and went off.107
Black workers had also learned to set limits on the abuse they would take from white colleagues. One black tobacco worker would “cuss them out” if whites “start calling me ‘boy’.” A black woman recognized that “if you don’t stand up and demand respect, they won’t give you nothing. You have to demand it. And let ‘em know you willing to pay the price to get it.”108 As the interests of workers and employers came increasingly into conflict, acts of individual resistance might inspire a search for more collective methods of demanding “respect.”
It would not be easy to unite. The same black woman who insisted on keeping her self-respect also knew that “white folks is mean and nasty.” Her experience at L and M had etched that understanding deeply in her mind. “You’re over here doing all the nasty dirty work. And over there on the cigarette side . . . The white women over there wear white uniforms . . . And you’re over here handling all that old sweaty tobacco . . . There’s a large difference.”109 White women, dressed in clean white uniforms, believed just as firmly that there was a “large difference” between themselves and black women, a difference that must be preserved. They clung to their privileged status without doubting their moral and racial superiority. One of their number, unselfconsciously, spoke about seeking a way “out of slavery” for white workers without a thought about her more downtrodden sisters.110 The bitterness of one woman and the complacency of the other were consequences of the system that divided them. Each in her own way stood up for herself, but they remained estranged.
Another Durham woman, the daughter and the neighbor of many tobacco workers, eloquently summarized the internal barriers that reinforced the external obstacles to the formation of a conscious and cohesive class:
The constrictions, the restraints, the hidden threats that we lived under, that were the conditions of our lives, inevitably produced mutations in the natural human flowering. To me we were like plants that were meant to grow upright but became bent and twisted, stunted, sometimes stretching and running along the ground, because the conditions of our environment forbade our developing upward naturally.111
According to Mary Mebane, too many victims preyed on each other or repressed their own anger in order to survive.
Ernest Seeman, another sympathetic observer, saw only “dull anger and despair” coming out of workers’ futile efforts to refuse “to work on the mill owners’ terms.” In his bleak vision, Durham’s factories would “forever fabricate and roll out from the workers’ sweat and toil . . . the dividends for their absentee owners.” He saw them as the helpless victims of the greed and cunning of their employers, “snapped-up and tumbling into the hopper’s trembling vortex” that fed “the gigantic machine process” that had created Durham. These workers could only remain “spellbound by all the clatter and technological din” while progress and prosperity remained the possession of a tiny few.112
Bessie Buchanan recalled a dream that echoed Seeman’s nightmarish vision. In the dream she was seized by a group who threatened to throw her into a “lions’ pit”:
I asked them, “Why are you doing this to me? I never joined a union in my life.” And so, one of the girls said, “Can you prove that . . . There’s a gang of men with these knives . . . going this way, and if you can walk down that line and not get killed, I’ll let you out of here.” I just said, “Lord, go with me.” And I went down. I never heard so many people hollering at you . . . You could see the women on the outside just hollering at you. But I walked down that line and I was not harmed. And when I got out, I was the only person out, ‘cause I hadn’t joined a union . . . I never joined and I always felt like it was a vision that the Lord gave me.113
Her dream placed salvation on one hand, solidarity on the other. The class-conscious members of her community became the malevolent harpies of her nightmare. A picket line, perhaps remembered from the 1934 strike, was transformed into a gauntlet from which she was the only survivor because she “hadn’t joined a union.” The implications of that dream could chill the hope of the most optimistic believer in working class resistance.
Any organizer attempting to mobilize Durham workers had to transform their “silent acquiescence” into “intelligent discontent.”114 Workers had to be convinced that salvation was possible through collective effort. Racial fears and hostilities had to be overcome. Considering the large numbers of female workers, an organizer had to convince his feminine listeners that class-based organizations led by white men could advance their interests without threatening their respectability. He had to pursue the allegiance of these women by going into the communities and the households where they labored after their stint in the public workplace. Like this imaginary organizer, we must enter the segregated neighborhoods of working-class Durham so that we can listen to the voices of Durham women speaking about their hopes and fears. Only then can we begin to understand the forces that were creating a class that was beginning “to grow upright.”115