north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     In the summer of 1946, nearly 10,000 tobacco “leaf house” workers in eastern North Carolina, primarily African American women, joined unions in a mass organizing campaign (tagged “Operation Dixie”) headed by the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU-AFL) and the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA-CIO). From South Boston, Virginia, to Lumberton, North Carolina, workers secured union contracts in nearly thirty tobacco leaf houses.

     The labor protest and organization campaign followed the 1943 effort that took place at R. J. Reynolds factories in Winston-Salem. The 1946 campaign differed in that it not only focused on labor rights, but also resulted in important strides in civil rights for African Americans. Efforts were made by the union organizers to increase black voter registration and to instigate political action against segregation within the leaf houses. Nearly ten years before the Montgomery bus boycott, black workers in eastern North Carolina worked for civil rights through “unionism.” As one participant recorded, “We’re not just an organizing campaign, we’re a social revolution.” And another, “It wasn’t just wages we wanted, but freedom.”

     While the movement began with the TWIU-AFL organizing locals and securing contracts in six leaf houses in Wilson and one in Rocky Mount in the summer of 1946, the first official union election, which was won by the FTA-CIO in September 1946, took place at China American Tobacco Company in Rocky Mount. After that election the FTA-CIO won 22 of 24 elections in North Carolina. The consequence was that the organizers established a significant union presence in eastern North Carolina leaf houses, benefitting the tobacco workers of the area. Today only two union locals remain.

Robert R. Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South (2003)
Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, “Negotiating Poverty: Economic Insecurity and the Politics of Working-Class Life in
Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 1929-1969” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 2003)
Roger D. Biles, “Tobacco Towns: Urban Growth and Economic Development in Eastern North Carolina,”
North Carolina Historical Review (April 2007): 156-190
(Raleigh) News and Observer, December 9, 2007
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north carolina highway historical marker program

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