Marker to honor 1940s labor union

Article originally published in the Winston-Salem Journal on April 15, 2013. Original article can be found here.

Velma Hopkins escorts Gwendylyn Bailey, the first African American to attend R.J. Reynolds High School, during racial integration in 1957.
Photo courtesy of the Forsyth County Public Library.

In 1957, nine African-American students marched into Little Rock Central High School alongside troops from the 101st Airborne Division. The soldiers escorted the students past the white mob who spit at them and called them names.

In contrast, the racial integration of R.J. Reynolds High School was uneventful. A picture of the Reynolds integration shows a single student escorted not by a soldier or police officer but by an African-American woman wearing dark sunglasses and a proud demeanor. The woman’s name was Velma Hopkins.

Hopkins was no stranger to social activism or making history. She already was a veteran of a struggle for racial justice that had mobilized 10,000 workers into the streets of Winston-Salem as part of an attempt to bring unions to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. more than a decade earlier.

The union, called Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO, organized a labor campaign in the 1940s and a strike for better working conditions, pay and civil rights. It was the only time in the history of Reynolds Tobacco that it had a union.

Local 22 eventually was decertified as it was linked to communism and succumbed to anti-union efforts, including an editorial campaign against Local 22 by the Winston-Salem Journal and its publisher at the time, Gordon Gray, whose family had made Reynolds Tobacco a powerhouse.

At noon Saturday, community members and organizations will unveil a historic state marker commemorating the work of Local 22. The marker will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the union and will be erected at the corner of Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Organizers include members of the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, Occupy Winston-Salem, labor organizers, social justice activists and elected officials.

Widespread influence

The dramatic story of Local 22 is explored in the book, “Civil Rights Unionism” by Robert Korstad, a history professor at Duke University.

During the height of Jim Crow racial segregation, union members faced legally sanctioned discrimination and fought against a powerful elite who influenced virtually all aspects of life in Winston-Salem. The reach of Reynolds’ power, through the popularity of its Camel cigarettes, could be felt throughout the nation and the world.

“They knew that trying to bring a union into Winston-Salem, particularly at R.J. Reynolds, that was like David taking on Goliath — particularly African-American women, who were not only looked at as second-class citizens but they were women, also,” said state Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.

Years before the civil rights movement gained momentum, the interracial union, led primarily by black women, pushed the boundaries of economic, racial and gender equality.

Before Local 22 succumbed to accusations of Communist influence and the power of Reynolds’ anti-unionism, it gained national attention for its vision of an equal society. This vision garnered the scrutiny of powerful enemies such as Richard Nixon and captured the attention of allies such as actor Paul Robeson and iconic songwriter Woody Guthrie.

Although Local 22 ultimately failed to slay the giant, the union influenced a generation of civil rights activists.

‘It’s who I am today’

As a child, Earline Parmon went to bed in East Winston surrounded by the smell of menthol from the Reynolds cigarette factory wafting into her room. People in the black community nicknamed the company “Papa Reynolds” because of its tight control over the lives of its workers and city residents.

As a young woman, Parmon heard stories about the horrible working conditions that black workers endured at the Reynolds factories. Blacks and whites worked in separate plants, with blacks allowed to work only in unskilled positions. These jobs typically included preparing and processing the tobacco for cigarettes, often strenuous work. Blacks were subjected to brutally hot conditions for long hours breathing tobacco dust.

At the feet of former union leaders such as Velma Hopkins and Mazie Woodruff, Parmon also heard inspiring stories of Local 22’s fight.

She heard about the fateful day in 1943 when the death of a Reynolds worker sparked a 38-day strike that would lead to seven years of union activity. The strike was led by black women who saw an opportunity to better their lives.

“They were fed up, and they weren’t going to take it anymore,” Parmon said. “I just think they said, ‘We gotta change.’ Even at the expectation that you might get killed.”

Parmon found Hopkins and Woodruff captivating, caring and bold at the same time. Whether it was standing before the all-white Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to advocate for the black community or helping people to pass literacy tests to vote, the women were committed to positive change, Parmon said.

Hopkins, in particular, mentored Parmon to continue the union’s crusade for economic and social justice, motivating her to take part in local advocacy and eventually run for public office.

“Miss Hopkins had such an impact on my life,” Parmon said. “It’s who I am today in terms of my belief system, my value system and my moral system and standing up for what’s right without fear of being intimidated.”

Parmon is the first African American elected as a state senator from the 32nd District, something she believes would have made Hopkins proud.

A foundation of activism

In addition to fighting for labor rights on the factory floor, Local 22 demanded racial equality. Many years before the civil rights movement, when every aspect of life in Winston-Salem was segregated, Local 22 was interracial.

Members of Local 22 picket in downtown Winston-Salem during the 1947 strike against R.J. Reynolds.
Photo courtesy of the Forsyth County Public Library.

The union organized massive voter registration drives that resulted in the first black official to defeat a white candidate in the South in the 20th century. Winston-Salem’s NAACP membership swelled and became the largest in the state as a result of the union.

The union’s influence still is felt today among advocates for social justice.

“The big push for the development of the African-American community here politically and economically was the starting of Local 22,” said Larry Little, associate professor of political science at Winston-Salem State University and former Winston-Salem alderman. Little credits the union for the development of Winston-Salem’s black middle class.

The victories that union members won at the Reynolds tobacco factories led many of them towards social activism after the union was defeated. Former Local 22 members supported Little when he helped create the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party. And when Little rallied opposition to the conviction of Darryl Hunt for the murder of a newspaper copy editor, former Local 22 members filled those early meetings. Hunt, who is black, was exonerated and released from prison in 2004 after serving 18 years.

“We got younger people involved later, but it was these old people who were concerned that he not be alone in this quest for justice,” Little said.

Little’s mother was a Reynolds employee until she was fired for her union activity. As a child, his mother told him about the tragic case of a black man named Clyde Brown. In 1947, Brown was arrested on charges of raping a white girl in her father’s radio store. Some news reports suggest that he may have confessed under duress. Despite several appeals, he was convicted of rape and executed in 1953.

After Hunt was charged with the murder of Deborah Sykes in 1984, several former Local 22 members pulled Little aside and gave him a picture of Clyde Brown.

“These old ladies, they had seen what would happen in these situations where black men are falsely accused of rape,” Little said. “They said, ‘Larry, you can’t let happen to Darryl what happened to Clyde Brown.’

“I kept that picture with me all the time.”

Marching in the same streets

Last year, members of Occupy Winston-Salem marched outside of the Reynolds American Inc. headquarters on Main Street to protest company layoffs. As he chanted support for the Reynolds workers and waved a sign that read, “Reynolds is addicted to greed,” social activist Will Cox had no idea he was literally walking in the footsteps of Local 22.

Local 22 turned its leaders into national celebrities within the labor and civil rights movements. But despite these successes and even a book about the union, Local 22 has been largely overlooked in its own city.

The struggles of Local 22 inspired Occupy Winston-Salem member Will Cox to apply for a state marker to honor the union. Larry Little stands behind Cox at the unveiling of a Winston-Salem city marker honoring the Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Photo by the author.

Cox had heard only bits of information about the Reynolds union over the years, and like many Winston-Salem residents, was unaware of its importance. That changed after he met a local union leader named Richard Koritz, the son of the director of Local 22, at a protest in Charlotte. When he heard Cox was from Winston-Salem, Koritz told him about his book on the union.

“I went straight to the library and checked out the book and was dumbfounded about how significant this struggle was,” Cox said. “Ten thousand workers who took on Jim Crow racism and dealt with race, gender and class, and this was during the 1940s.”

Cox jumped into activism while at Appalachian State University and continued to be involved in social justice issues after he moved to Winston-Salem. He joined Occupy Winston-Salem in 2011 because of its focus to end corporate greed and limit corporate money in politics.

The union inspired Cox to apply for a state marker to honor Local 22. The marker was approved was by the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee and will be titled, “Tobacco Unionism.”

The addition of the Local 22 marker to Winston-Salem’s landscape is long overdue, Cox said. But he hopes the legacy of Local 22 isn’t just relegated to a sheet of iron.

“It makes me feel empowered,” Cox said.

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