Striking tobacco workers in Winston-Salem to he honored with historic marker

The Forsyth County Historic Resources Center has approved a historic marker commemorating a series of strikes by predominantly African-American tobacco workers at Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem.

The commission unanimously approved the marker in December, Historic Resource Officer LeAnn Pegram said. The marker will be placed in front of Factory Complex 64 at 500 E. 5th St., which dates back to 1916. Pegram said a developer who recently purchased the complex has agreed to pay for the marker, but wants to wait until the building is rehabbed to unveil it. In March 2012, the Winston-Salem City Council designated the Factory Complex 64 as a historic building, which makes the owner eligible for tax credits in exchange for preserving its features.

"The RJR Factory Complex 64 site is significant as being one of the few remaining sites where large strikes took place (1943, 1947) between the CIO-affiliated Local 22 and the RJ Reynolds Company, representing an important series of events in the labor history of the city," Pegram wrote in a recent PowerPoint. "During the history of Reynolds (and other tobacco facilities), there was a constant struggle for African-American workers to improve their wages and the harsh working conditions in the factories. The 1943 strike occurred when a factory employee died while working, after requesting permission to leave due to illness. Several hundred female stemmers began an immediate strike that spread throughout most of the facilities. A second strike occurred in 1947."

The strikes, along with the history of Local 22 and its long-term impact on the development of black political leadership in Winston-Salem, is chronicled in Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South by Robert Korstad.