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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Duke family's community influence in relationship to smallpox outbreak

Seeman addresses two pertinent issues: the influence of the Duke family over Durham by the early 1900s and the issue of race within the tobacco industry. He begins by explaining that since the 1880s his father had been printing labels for Bull Durham and had established close working connections with the Duke family and subsequently the American Tobacco Company. During the early twentieth century, C. W. Toms—described here as one of Buck Duke's "stooges"—asked Seeman's father to act as an intermediary to the local newspapers. News stories regarding outbreaks of smallpox amongst African Americans had began to adversely affect business for the American Tobacco Company because African Americans constituted a high percentage of the company's workers. With the intervention of Seeman's father, the story was covered up, thus illustrating the powerful influence of the Duke family over community affairs.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
Did you tell me that in the 1890s - no, the 1880s - he printed the Bull Durham labels?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes. That's what killed him. He had a little tray in his printing office of bronze. He'd take a piece of carton and dip it into bronze and rub it over the printing where it had been printed. The ink would pick up the bronze. He probably designed that (at least part of it), how to make it shine like gold. And it got all in his throat; the doctor said that had a lot to do with it, his lungs.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was the making of the labels for Bull Durham the major portion of your father's printing business?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes. When he landed those big contracts (there were hundreds of thousands, you see, even millions), Duke's mixture was red and black. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
MIMI CONWAY:
. . . as a printer for the Dukes, afterwards when they bought up Bull Durham. Could you tell me some more about it?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, after our connection with C.W. Toms he was a very astute man, a diplomat, and was using us and everybody else for all he was worth. He considered Durham the tobacco company's town. So here comes Mr. Toms one morning to the printing office; comes in the front door, barges into my father's private office (he had a private office, to talk over tricks) and says, "Henry, I want to have a little talk with you." He says, "Come right in, Mr. Toms." And they go in and close the door; everybody wonders what this great man with the gold walking cane that Mr. Duke had given him (his favorite stooges, he always gave them a golden-headed walking cane - that was a badge of authority) . . .
MIMI CONWAY:
Was this Washington Duke? Or which Duke gave them the walking canes?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
That was Buck Duke. Buck Duke gave it to them; Washington Duke was out of it by this time. Washington Duke was an old man living with his sister-in-law, Miss Annie Roney, up in front of the college.
MIMI CONWAY:
And so Mr. Toms was in the office with your father?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
What did he come to say?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
He says, "Look here on this New York paper, it's telling all about the smallpox in Durham." We had smallpox regularly there, from the Negroes' filth. He says, "This won't do at all; it's hurting our tobacco business. I want you to help me curb it. You write a piece for the paper and say that's all a mistake, and it ain't near as bad as it's pictured, and it's been played up." So Ed Rollins and Joe King owned the newspapers, the morning and evening newspapers.
MIMI CONWAY:
What were the papers' names?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
The Durham Morning Herald and the Evening Sun. And the Durham Morning Herald belonged to Ed Rollins and Joe King, and they had a printing office in their office in the Main Street Pharmacy. And their presses were rolling down there printing the newspapers. And the Durham Daily Sun had been started long before any of them, and it had a picture of the sun. And they were up over one of the hardware stores, upstairs. And the man that owned that was an alcoholic, so his wife (a school teacher) had to do most of the newspaper work.
MIMI CONWAY:
So did your father write the article that Mr. Toms wanted him to write?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes. He went around to see these two entrepreneurs, and told them what Toms wanted. And they saw to it right away: it's hurting our town, and this won't do. And he pled for the tobacco people. Rollins hadn't thought about it: he was just thinking of money. He was doing fine, and he didn't give a hoot about Toms or nobody else; he was an independent old Scotchman. And he had a fine house right near our house in north Durham; he was my neighbor.
MIMI CONWAY:
Had the Durham papers also been printing the news about smallpox, or was it just the New York papers?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
These were town papers.
MIMI CONWAY:
Town papers had been printing this.
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
So did the editors stop printing that after your father went and talked to them?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Yes.
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes, he convinced them: you better shut up or Toms will get you.
MIMI CONWAY:
Now was this in the period before the cigarette rolling machines were bought, when the cigarettes were still rolled by black labor? Were they worried about smallpox among blacks in Durham because the blacks were rolling the cigarettes at that time? Is that what the connection was?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, ever since before the Civil War the prominent citizens had made their living on Negro rentals. My father-in-law, 12 for instance, and his father before him, had been heartless. 12 William P. Henry They thought that was all right. You buy a little old piece of ground somewhere on a creek or a ditch, or a filth/slop place, and build you a little nigger cabin on it. And then you charge them as much as the place would cost just for . . .
MIMI CONWAY:
But were blacks working in the Durham cigarette factories at the time of the smallpox?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes, that's where they were working. They'd come home and go to the factories with the smallpox, and scatter it all over the country.