Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Comparing organization of African American workers in Durham and in Winston-Salem

Pearson draws comparisons between race relations in Durham and in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In particular, Pearson focuses on efforts to organize African American workers in both of those industrial centers, arguing that Durham was typically more progressive.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. 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

WALTER WEARE:
You mentioned Winston-Salem a moment ago, that the black community had more trouble there getting organized than it did in Durham. I was speaking about the labor union. Winston-Salem had a black bus company—they got a franchise out there—and I think it's still going. I'm not sure. Safety Bus Company.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. That grew out of the fact that you didn't want whites and blacks on the same busses for fear you might have difficulty, and the Negroes capitalized on it, and I think it's still going.
WALTER WEARE:
I think it might have grown out of a boycott earlier(
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
But now Winston, with about the same-sized black population, I think, working in tobacco factories, but without something like the North Carolina Mutual and North Carolina College, wasn't able to get people registered to vote or to organize the community, were they, in the same way that Durham was?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I think Durham was far more progressive in all lines, because you had Winston-Salem Teachers' College there. I don't know whether they had a bank over there that failed or not. But the Reynolds Tobacco Company was very progressive, because here in Durham they didn't allow Negroes to work in the cigarette side of the factories. And I went to Winston-Salem once and went through the Reynolds Tobacco Company. They made cigarettes in the whole building; they had one floor that was controlled by Negroes, who were making the cigarettes. And when you went through there, they gave you a package of cigarettes. Anytime you had a convention or a church convention there, you'd go through there and see it. It was good publicity for them. But they didn't have that in Durham. All the cigarette-making was done by whites.
WALTER WEARE:
Did unionization begin to change that?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes, after they got unionized.
WALTER WEARE:
Were the Winston workers unionized before the Durham workers?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, I think Durham was organized before Winston-Salem. They didn't have any success there, I don't think, until after the War. And then that didn't last but about a year, and then they voted them out.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you remember any overt conflict between the tobacco workers in Durham on the one hand trying to get organized, and the Negro leadership on the other hand, represented by Spaulding and Shepard?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Oh, they didn't have anything to do with the labor movement.
WALTER WEARE:
Now in this Durham Committee, that did begin to get into the labor union movement.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes, they supported the labor movement.
WALTER WEARE:
Who in the Durham Committee would have been active in supporting the labor movement?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I think the Committee as a whole supported it, no particular personality.
WALTER WEARE:
Is there anybody that stands out in your memory as the most active of the organizers? Were they outsiders or people in town? Did the International send in people from the outside?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. One fellow started it, who was a local, and he left here. Then later on they did get a union started here. Then the International came here and hired several of the tobacco workers and sent them all over the country where they had these factories to organize.
WALTER WEARE:
You don't remember that figure who started it here.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I can't remember the fellow's name. It was years ago.
WALTER WEARE:
Was he a tobacco worker?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes, he started a private labor organization. And he started trying to get them organized, and they were meeting at the Wonderland Theater, and I spoke down there for them, white and black sitting in there. And the press was opposed to it. And eventually they did get organized. I imagine it was done through the International Workers.