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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 25, 1974. Interview E-0014-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Laundry workers' strike in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1947

Russell talks about the 1947 Laundry Workers' Strike in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Fur and Leather Workers Union helped to organize the laundry workers, primarily African American women, in that locale. Russell describes how they worked for months in Winston-Salem, spreading leaflets and raising awareness of the plight of the laundry workers. Although the strike ultimately failed (which he describes later in the interview), he recalls a tremendous swelling of support for the laundry workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 25, 1974. Interview E-0014-2. 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

WILLIAM FINGER:
Do you remember the effect the strike had on the town?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Terrific … we were the talk of the town for many many months there, you know. Because we used to leaflet the entire town. We fed down town, not the shopping centers, but the down town areas … these are the tobacco plants, we leafleted everywhere we could leaflet, even in the residential areas. We got leaflets that were politically oriented.
WILLIAM FINGER:
What do you mean "politically"?
JOHN RUSSELL:
In a sense of pointing out the political effect of the strike, what it would do to the town, the county and everything else. We also had those who approved purely from a humanitarian point of view. And anyway, we spent weeks and weeks and we probably spent as much leafleting as we did in strike benefits. We laid out a real cause all around that area of the country.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Ben Gold came down then?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Ben Gold came and spent about a week down there, close to it, and made a number of speeches …
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did it move him?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Oh, yeah. I'll never forget Ben. We took him on a tour of the areas right around the tobacco plants, and in those days they were nothing but slums, as you remember, or if you ever knew the country at all. But there were, oh, some horrible places, and even horrible by modern day slums, I mean. Some areas of the nation today … they were much worse than that because of outside toilets, in many cases, one water spicket sticking up between two or three houses, and and that is what they used for water and stuff like that. And nobody could tolerate those conditions today, I guess, or would now, but in those days they were there, and I'll never forget what Ben said to me one day, he said "John, you see the most amazing thing, look at those kids, look at their teeth … so white, and so clean, they are handsome young people." He said, "I guess the only thing that makes these people, that makes these kids look that way, is that most of them who aren't strong and very able, die out at an early age, and I guess there is something to that, too. Only the strongest survive among them." Anyway, Ben was a very compassionate guy. Ben Gold was a guy who bled every time he saw any suffering, and he … it moved him tremendously. He put in about six months, I don't know how much money, but for that period of time, it would be far in excess of our International or any union today would do, you know. Simply because when he came, when he saw, it didn't matter then how much money he spent, you know, as long as he was able to get it. He was that kind of a guy.
WILLIAM FINGER:
He wrote a … your word is the best one, a very "compassionate," but also a strongly political letter in the Fur Leather Workers paper.
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yes, yes.
WILLIAM FINGER:
A long …
JOHN RUSSELL:
He always did.
WILLIAM FINGER:
What kind of support do you remember, when you leafleted all over the county, from the …
JOHN RUSSELL:
Excellent, it was a surprising thing. In fact, let me tell you, they were … those laundries were in trouble for a long long time. People just stayed away from them. We used to picket in front of them … picket in front and pass out leaflets, and in every struck plant. And the reception was wonderful, and in the neighborhoods or on the streets or anywhere. We developed a picture of these people, actual pictures of their homes, their conditions, their pay checks … It just couldn't help but move somebody, you know, and it moved tens of thousands of these people around that area. We used to go into other towns like High Point, and put them out so they would get the message to them. We had leafleting committees printing every day.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did other workers walk out other places?
JOHN RUSSELL:
No, no, no. We had all the laundries there on strike, you understand, all of … any size. Now, I don't remember if there were any small ones we didn't put on. We had all the … we had every one that had from fifty workers up, most of them had 100 to 150 workers in them.