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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 >>

Race dynamics within the tobacco industry

Seeman offers a vignette of race relations within Durham and within the American Tobacco Company during the early twentieth century with a description of Richard Fitzgerald, the father of Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a prosperous African American within the community because of access to clay and his subsequent control over bricks within that market. Nevertheless, Seeman explains how Fitzgerald was still subject to practices of segregation. In order to illustrate the way racial dynamics operated at this time, Seeman describes an encounter between Fitzgerald and a builder for the Dukes.

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:
Can we go back a minute? I think you had told me about knowing Ella Fitzgerald when you were young, and her father?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Can you tell me a little bit about it?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Sure. Richard Fitzgerald came down from Boston - from Massachusetts somewhere. He heard about all this big expansion in Durham, and he figured it would be a good place to sell bricks. So he bought a little piece of clay down there and opened a brickyard. He was a very handsome man, a large man, a very capable man. He had several children, and they were all well-educated. Of course, that was before any liberality between the races took 15 William Kenneth Boyd, who also wrote The Story of Durham, City of the New South, Duke Univ. Press, 1927. I was not able to locate these ballads among Dr. Boyds papers. place, and a nigger was a nigger. So he bought this clay near the white cemetery, the land that nobody wanted that you could buy cheap. And I remember the old brickyard well; the old wreck of it stood there long after. And out of that came a lot of Duke's factories; he had other brickyards in other places in the county - one brickyard couldn't supply enough bricks.
MIMI CONWAY:
For the Duke factories?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes. All those big Duke factories came out of these gullies. He used Negro labor.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did Fitzgerald go one time to see Duke about selling him bricks?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
Could you tell me about that?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
There was a white man, a proud old Southerner named Norton (I knew all his children).
MIMI CONWAY:
Who was Norton? Did he work for the tobacco company?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Norton was a builder. And this Fitzgerald goes around to Norton's house one morning and knocks on the door. And here comes Norton to the door, all angered at the very idea of a nigger coming to his front door. He said, "Don't you know better than to come to my front door? You go to the back door." "Sorry, Mr. Norton, I don't go to my own back door." So that cost him the contract, a higher price; he lost out.
MIMI CONWAY:
Who lost out?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Norton.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was Norton the builder for the Duke factories?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
And when he insulted Mr. Fitzgerald, then . . . How did he lose out? Tell me how Norton lost out? How did Fitzgerald win?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, Fitzgerald was a handsome man and Norton was a shrimp of a man, hot-tempered, southern-based. And he just turned him away and he didn't give him the chance; he had nothing for him.