History, Legacy, and Hope
By Chad Nance
“If these women will stand up for their rights them I’m with them.”
– James McCardell a 38-year RJR “draft boy” moments before dropping dead of an aneurysm on June 17, 1943 after 15 years of hard labor at RJR
On April 20th 2013 the Reynold’s building still towered over Winston-Salem, North Carolina… empty and silent as a tomb- its halls home only to the ghosts of past power and the avarice to use it. Down on the street, walking up the cracked sidewalk on Fourth were a group of human beings marching… still marching, still living, still remembering and they shall not be moved. The mighty have no power over the many when the people join together with one voice and demand their human rights. Perhaps that is why those holding political power in North Carolina are still working diligently to try to ensure that the people will not come together behind the banners of the past.
Saturday the sanctuary at First Calvary Baptist Church was filled with 200 or more citizens of all races and creeds, come together to celebrate the heroes of the past and hopefully heed the warnings about the present. Sitting on the stage of Pastor Derwin Montgomery’s church were living, breathing, tangible connections to Winston-Salem’s noble past of worker resistance to the patriarchal oligarchy that ruled with the threat of deeper poverty, legal sanction, and in the final analysis brutal violence.
Punishments doled out for resistance to the “white supremacy” ranged from the rape of women workers to the lynching or “disappearing” of black men. Winston-Salem’s African American (and poor white) workers labored in conditions that were so inhumane and brutal that when German prisoners of war were brought to Forsyth County and put to work at RJR they were not allowed to do the work done by blacks because that work and those conditions were deemed so inhumane that letting the POWs do those jobs would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime.
It was in this political/social environment and with those vicious reprisals hanging over her head like the Sword of Domiciles, a young, self-possessed, confident, and fed up black woman named Theodosia Gaither Simpson revealed to her sisters in RJ Reynold’s #60 Leaf House that it was THEY who had the power. Not the Foremen and supervisors that verbally and physically brutalized them, not the police or the vigilante gangs, and most of all not John Clarke Whitaker sitting in his office in the Reynold’s Building looking down on them.
When RJR Reynold’s vice-president Whitaker, for whom Whitaker Park is named, got out of bed on his 120 acre spread in West Winston-Salem on June 17th 1943 he did not know, and in truth probably did not care, about a young couple who began that same morning in the racist-named “Monkey Hollow”. The hollow was a muddy, filthy slum made up of rough shacks and streets filled with garbage, human waste, and horse shit. While Whitaker’s servants tended to him and his family, Theodosia Gaither Simpson tended to her husband and prepared to go to work herself in one of Reynold‘s stemming houses. Neither had any idea that before their day was over their lives, Winston-Salem, and in many ways America itself, would be changed forever.
Before the entire saga of Winston-Salem’s Local 22 was written, Reynold’s would improve it’s labor and safety practices, the Winston-Salem chapter of the NAACP would be revitalized, the men and women of Local 22 would be beacons and inspirations to the Civil Rights movement, and a generation of Winston-Salem African Americans would be politicized and taught to organize. The legacy of Local 22 remains with us today in the same way that artifacts and reverberations of Jim Crow and the “White Supremacy” remain with us today in our State House and on the streets.
On Saturday Dr. Larry Little, whose mother was one of the leaf house organizers of Local 22, spoke to those gathered at Calvary about Kalvin Michael Smith who languishes in a North Carolina prison in spite of evidence that he was famed and convicted for a crime he did not commit. Velma Hopkins protégé, Sen. Earline Parmon, spoke about the current conditions in Raleigh where North Carolinian’s are seeing an all out assault of many of the freedoms and victories won by the Local 22 and other human rights organizations over the years. Richard Korlitz spoke about his father Phillips Korlitz’s imprisonment and persecution for daring to help organize exploited workers in 1940’s and 50’s Winston-Salem.
Korlitz’s also brought up an issue that has plagued the organizers and activists of Local 22 and tarnished the proud legacy that the Union has here in Winston-Salem. In the 1950’s when Americans had been worked into an anti-communist frenzy by Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Richard Nixon, the anti-union forces at RJ Reynolds used their connections with local media, middle class African American civics groups, and white churches to wage a campaign of character assassination and intimidation when they learned that some of the organizers of Local 22 had been aided by the American Communist Party.
In the same way that those who would want you to now forgive the Winston-Salem’s past oligarchs on the argument that they “Did not knowing what they are doing” because judging them by 21st Century ethical standards would not be fair- you must consider that the connections and support that the Local 22 received from the American Communist Party were not only important, they were legitimate and vital in an America before McCarthyism when the communists seemed to many as an antidote to the terrifying specter of rising, global fascism.
The world’s communist took up arms against the fascist threat long before the forces of Democracy entered that particular fray. The veil of false and misleading “history” surrounding the American Communist Party is, in part, their own fault because of their support of the USSR when all indications were that Lenin and Stalin were neither true communist nor men of the proletariat. It is also the result of vicious and targeted propaganda campaigns and created falsehoods spread with the complicity of the American media, including here with the Winston-Salem Journal (who have recently apologized for their role in destroying Local 22.)
While it is vital to honor and remember the struggles of the heroes of Local 22, it is important to note that those struggles are far from over and the battle remains joined with the forces of oppression and exploitation. The state government of North Carolina is waging an all out assault on the rights and privileges of North Carolina’s working poor and those struggling in poverty. Kalvin Michael Smith has still not received a fair trial. So many children in Winston-Salem still go to be hungry every night that we are listed with cities like Detroit and New Orleans when it comes to childhood poverty. The struggle is not over, and the race is not nearly won.
Standing there in the bright son watching Dr. Larry Little, Velma Hopkin’s daughters, Phillip Korlitz’s son, Sen. Earline Parmon, Evelyn Terry, and others pull the black veil from the shiny new historical marker, one thought kept ringing through my head:
Come back to us Robert Black, rise up Velma Hopkins, return Willie Grier, Etta Hobson, Ruby Jones, Robert Lathan, Clark Sheppard, Theodosia Simpson, Phillip Korlitz, and Moranda Smith. We need you now more than ever. All power to the people… we shall not be moved.
Much of the historical data in the above piece is a credit to the brilliant work of Robert Rogers Korstad in his book Civil Rights Unions: Tobacco Workers & The Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South.
This marker and ceremony were conceived and planned by members of Occupy Winston-Salem including Will Cox, Kim Porter, and Tony Ndege.