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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Burt, February 6, 1979. Interview H-0194-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A look inside a tobacco factory

As a sweeper in the tobacco factory, Burt was able to see every step of the tobacco product creation process. He seeks to describe it, and while his description can be hard to follow, his memories offer an interesting look inside a tobacco factory. He describes a dirty work environment, one that became so dusty that workers sprinkled water on the floor to keep the dust down. He also describes a racially and sexually segregated workplace, though the precise lines are unclear.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Burt, February 6, 1979. Interview H-0194-2. 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

GLENN HINSON:
When you were sweepin' floors, what floor were you workin' on then?
THOMAS BURT:
I was workin' on the first floor. That's where all the action was, down there on the bottom floor. That's where they doin' all this stemmin' tobacco, and shakin' tobacco. You had to shake that tobacco down there on the bottom floor.
GLENN HINSON:
When did you shake it?
THOMAS BURT:
They kept somebody shakin' it all the time. That was some of the jobs went on all the time. They had women doin' nothin' but stemmin' tobacco.
GLENN HINSON:
Would you shake it before you stemmed it?
THOMAS BURT:
Yeah. That tobacco was in good order when it come in. They would come in there and they'd hang it and put in some place up there. It'd come out, they'd take it off the sticks, stem it, it went on up to the trough and it went on up yonder. You see that tobacco goin' on up there after they done stemmed it. Next time you see it, it was in a cigarette or chewin' tobacco or whatever they's gonna make out of it. It go on up yonder and come down in a great big hopper. That thing was goin' around all the time grindin' that tobacco up. It siftin' out there, and they'd—I can't hardly tell you how that thing worked. I never had time to see it work much, puttin' that tobacco in that paper. That paper was layin' open, spread it out in the place. They'd put that tobacco in that paper. Some of them'd be as long as that door yonder go by. When they get so many, then they'd put it in a trough. It was a thing kind of like that, and it would run right up against that thing. That machine was right busy clippin' it. Sometimes some of it would go by. That's what made them long ones. You'd clip them and some of them were that long. They'd fall on the floor, and that's what we'd pick up when we got ready to quit work. About three or four minutes more work time, we'd go in there and fill up our lunch box full. I had cigarettes enough to fill a croker sack one time, just givin' them away. A whole lot of them sold them. When we stayed in Durham there's a fellow—there's no tellin' how much money he made sellin' cigarettes. Them boys sold more cigarettes around there! I didn't never sell none. I brought a gang of them out here home out to the country and give them to them boys what smoked them—kept them in cigarettes near about. Whole lot of them boys, no tellin' the money they didn't make, sellin' them by the hundred. Me and Pauline stayed in Durham, there's a fellow—I used to buy some from him—I don't know what factory he's workin' at; he's workin' at Liggett and Meyers or Imperial or whatever. He'd sell more cigarettes up and down Hazel Street. I used to buy them from him when I stayed in Durham there at my sister's. I forgot now what I used to pay forthem a hundred. I believe 50¢ or 75¢ a hundred. That boy makin' money! Whole lot of them boys get some cigarettes like that and sell them.
GLENN HINSON:
When you talked about the first floor in the factory, you said before they did any pulling off sticks and the hanging, it was in good order. Would the tobacco come in in
THOMAS BURT:
No, it come in in baskets. The tobacco come from the warehouse, it's in baskets. Then they hung it on sticks after it got to the factory. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
GLENN HINSON:
It was bundled up?
THOMAS BURT:
Yeah, tied up in bundles. It come to the factory just like it left the warehouse. They'd bring it in there in big truckloads. There's a place out there where they'd unload them trucks and baskets. It come from the warehouse when it come to the factory. They had folks back there hangin' tobacco after they bring it in there. I never could understand that. They had to hang it to put it in that dry kiln, or whatever they call it. It was somethin' to see.
GLENN HINSON:
After it was dry somebody untied them all?
THOMAS BURT:
Yeah, cut them heads loose. Big trough there, you'd take it and dump it over there, and somebody clippin' the heads loose. Then they'd shake it out, somebody'd stem it, pull the whole stem out. Had a place to put the stems in one place over there in a pile. The leaves, they'd pack that in a big, deep trough. They were right busy goin' up. Left the bottom floor and went on up to the second floor where the machines was—all but this one that was down there clippin' the cigarettes. That great big hopper, it was down next to the bottom floor. The shippin' room was down in the basement, but you could see that big hopper right back there in the corner. They had a trough comin' out, and that tobacco's right busy runnin' out somewhere. I don't know where it went. The next time you see it, it'd rolled up. I don't know how it rolled it. It'd rolled up and them things'd be long as I don't know what. It'd come up there and run through them things sittin' up just wide enough for cigarettes to go in there. That trough was about that wide, and that thing would be full. That thing was right busy clippin'. It'd run up there and bump that thing, it'd clip it. Sometimes it'd bump so hard, some of them would pass and get too long. They'd clip it right on off and them would fall on the floor. They'd rake them up over in a corner in a pile; sometimes there'd be a pile there about half big as this house.
GLENN HINSON:
When you were sweeping, you were sweeping on the first floor. You were sweeping where the folks were shaking the tobacco?
THOMAS BURT:
Yeah, I just had a section to sweep. Just three or four sweepin'. I didn't sweep the whole factory. I had a part I swept, and another man a part he swept.
GLENN HINSON:
What did you do … ?
THOMAS BURT:
Run it over. You didn't sweep that outdoors, you just swept it in a pile over there in the corner, and they'd run that stuff over again. Sometimes, it's whole leaves, half of leaves, and tobacco trash. That's all it was. Course there was dirt in it, but I reckon that machine got the dirt out. You just sweep it over in the corner in a great big pile of tobacco. They had a big fork—they kept it piled up out your way—you'd sweep so much and then you take that fork and throw it up. Sometimes that pile'd be as high as this house. That dust! I'd sneeze and cough, your eyes'd burnin'. I had to wear me some of them big goggles. All up your nose, your ears would—get to the house and wash your ears—would look like I don't know what comin' out of your ears, that old dust settlin' on it. I'd be just as dusty at night. I'd go to brush myself, dust just be flyin'.
GLENN HINSON:
Was it that dusty for most of the people working on that floor?
THOMAS BURT:
No. For one thing, after so long a time, they got to sprinklin' that floor. Folks just couldn't stand it. After a while, they'd just go over that whole floor. The section I worked in, the section everybody worked in, they'd sprinkle it a little bit to kind of settle that dust. All of them talkin' about quittin'. If they hadn't done that, I don't think they would have had no floor sweepers if it hadn't stopped.
GLENN HINSON:
How did they sprinkle it?
THOMAS BURT:
With a sprinklin' pot. They'd fill that thing full of water. It had a cap that screwed on the end of it; they'd go along, carry it in their hand. That thing just foggin' water. That's a dusty, dusty, dusty place. I liked it after I got caught onto down in the shippin' room. That weren't so hard. That was easy work; only thing, you had to keep your mind on what you're doin' or you'd get the cigarettes mixed up. That's kind of a tedious job, but it weren't hard. I'd stack up them things as high as them pictures up yonder (about six feet). I'd start at the bottom and pack up a rack and just keep on packin'. Them folks over on the other side of us, they was the ones puttin' the labels on them, cappin' them up, and packin' them up in cartons.
GLENN HINSON:
In the shipping room, were most of the folks working there black folks?
THOMAS BURT:
About all of them; there was three or four white boys down there. There weren't no womens in that part. Weren't no one down there but men. The women was on the first floor and the second floor. The top floor was the place where they put the stuff that was ordered and shipped in there. All the machines was on the second floor. The top floor was the storage room up there. They had another big storage room out there where they put tobacco. They'd unload that tobacco out yonder in that other big one, and bring it in as they used it. They didn't put a whole load of tobacco in there at one time. They had trucks and runways, and they'd go out there and bring that different tobacco in there.
GLENN HINSON:
On the second floor, you said there was mostly women there?
THOMAS BURT:
Yeah, mostly women on the second floor.
GLENN HINSON:
Was it women running the machines?
THOMAS BURT:
Some of them, yeah. There was two or three women runnin' the machines.
GLENN HINSON:
Were they white or black?
THOMAS BURT:
Some black. There weren't no white women runnin' them machines. In other words, there weren't too many white women in there, nothing but secretaries, bookkeepers, and stuff like that. Most of the folks workin' on them machines, shakin' tobacco and all, they colored.
GLENN HINSON:
What about white men? What did most white men do?
THOMAS BURT:
There's a bunch of white men workin'. Some of them was operatin' them machines. Most of them were operatin' the machines.
GLENN HINSON:
Were they different machines from what the women were operating?
THOMAS BURT:
Yeah, some of them was. They had a machine to fix tobacco for cigarettes, they had a machine to fix tobacco for cigars, and they had one for chewin' tobacco. All the machines where was runnin' operating for cigarettes, that was all the same tobacco; there was no difference in that. All the tobacco come through there was just cigarette tobacco. Them other machines over there was makin' different cigars. Then they had another machine over there to grind up these stems I was tellin' you about for snuff. A whole lot of colored women runnin' them machines; they done been there long enough to know how to operate them machines. I didn't never fool with none of them.