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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Segregation of tobacco worker unions and relationship to local politics

Pearson discusses the organization of tobacco workers in Durham, North Carolina. When the workers were first organized, Pearson explains that the locals were segregated by race. After describing the African American union, Pearson addresses the larger implications for local politics.

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:
Now back to the tobacco workers. A lot of people are interested in this. Everybody that you knew, that is, the people working with you in the Hocutt case, would have been involved in the organization of the tobacco workers. You …
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Right.
WALTER WEARE:
Austin. Was McCoy still here?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
No, McCoy wasn't here.
WALTER WEARE:
And you said you met, the first time you can recall, in the Wonderland Theater?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes.
WALTER WEARE:
What happened after that?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
After that, the International started coming in. This was a man who started to organize locally his own union. And he left here and went down east. Then later on the International people came in, and they successfully organized separate labor unions.
WALTER WEARE:
For blacks.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes. One for white, one for black.
WALTER WEARE:
You mentioned, though, that there were some meetings where there were both blacks and whites.
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
That was in an organizational meeting, getting the idea propagated.
WALTER WEARE:
But the union as it turned out was a separate union for blacks?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
Yes, a separate one for black and a separate for white, and it went along that way until later on I think the Supreme Court or somebody passed a ruling that they couldn't have separate unions; they had to have one union. Then they combined.
WALTER WEARE:
Was there great resistance from the white workers to having a united union, in the first instance?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I think they were following the pattern. The pattern was separate but equal in everything.
WALTER WEARE:
Is there any direct evidence that you remember that the white power structure was trying to influence the white workers, using the race issue to keep them from uniting?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I don't recall any, but I'm sure they were opposed to the labor union movement. Because after the whites organized, they didn't want Negroes in their union, so the Negroes had to organize their own union.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you recall any campaign through the press, though, a kind of whipping up of anti-Negro sentiment because of this labor union activity?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I can't recall any.
WALTER WEARE:
After the Wonderland Theater and the organization got started, where would the black union meetings take place?
CONRAD ODELL PEARSON:
I don't know. I know it ended up with the black unions building their own building on Roxboro Street, which was Price Street then. And then they had what they called a Central Labor Union, with all of the labor unions being members; black and white and all the unions were members. That was a Political Club() project. And then they formed a coalition with the Citizens' Committee, the union and the Citizens' Committee, but it didn't pan out, because whenever a Negro ran for office the white unions would endorse him but wouldn't support him. So then the Negroes stopped supporting the labor candidates, until they finally got together. And now if you can get the endorsement of the Citizens' Committee and you have a base in the white community… Now when I was Chairman of the Political Committee of the Citizens' Committee on the Affairs of Black People, if a man came to me, I didn't care how qualified he was, he had to have a base in his own community, because we couldn't elect him. We could be the difference in the election, but we couldn't elect him.