Workers in 1940s R.J.R. labor strikes to gain honor Friday 

Workers in 1940s R.J.R. labor strikes to gain honor Friday 
May 07
00:00 2015

On May 8, the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission will unveil a historic marker remembering the R.J.R. labor strikes in the 1940s.

The markers honor members of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations (FTA-CIO).

In 1943, African-American leaf workers initiated a sit-down strike at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. during the height of Jim Crow South and the budding Civil Rights movement. Most of those workers were women who were against the poor wages they were given, poor working conditions and the segregated work.

“In 1943, someone died in the plant. They just wanted better conditions and better benefits. They helped get better wages, job security, vacation and grievances, so that it was a better place to work and be in,” said Michelle McCullough, historic resource officer for the Historic Resources Commission. “It was actually Mayor Pro Tempore [Vivian] Burke’s idea to commemorate the labor strikes that went on there. This is just commemorating that time in our history when industry just ran things and it took the people to step up and say ‘Wait a second. This isn’t right.’”

Burke said that she is delighted to see a marker unveiled in the labor strikes’ honor.

“When I think back about that area, where so many minorities worked hard, came out drenched with sweat with coats and sweaters on, I think they built up R.J. Reynolds. It was a buzzing area with people working hard to be productive with salaries that may not have been the best,” Burke said. “The history there was rich with people who believe in the old fashioned way: You work, you take care of yourself, share and uplift others. We embrace to move forward in a better way.”

Local 22 would turn out to be a model for interracial labor movements that were to follow in the South during the ‘40s. The group consisted of 10,000 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. workers that included white workers. The group is credited with helping to get Kenneth R. Williams, the city’s first black alderman, elected in 1947.

The group leaders faced backlash for their actions, including being labeled communists, spending time in jail or having to leave the city to find work.

In 1950, Local 22 ended after a National Labor Relations Board ruling stripped the union of its rights to represent workers. McCullough said that the struggles those in Local 22 dealt with has made the city what it is.

“Reynolds Tobacco really did put Winston-Salem on the map, but it’s through the challenges of time and conditions that we made this  a better place to be. That group of women standing up for themselves is part of that. I think we need to always remember that so we encourage the youth to do things like that. It’s important to stand up for your rights and stand up during different times of history.”

A historic marker from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources already sits at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Fourth Street near First Calvary Baptist Church.

The unveiling will be held at 6 p.m. at 545 Power Plant Circle, followed by a reception and loft tour hosted by Plant 64.

The marker is part of the commission’s recognition of May as Historic Preservation Month. The group will hold lectures, panel discussions, trolley tours of historic neighborhoods and the historic Rural Hall train depot.

Historic Preservation Month activities are presented and coordinated by Preservation Month Partners, a collaboration of the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission, Old Salem Museums and Gardens, the New Winston Museum, Reynolda House Museum of American Art and Preserve Historic Forsyth.

For more information about the events, call McCullough at 336-747-7063 or visit

About Author

Chanel Davis

Chanel Davis

Related Articles


Featured Sponsor

Receive Chronicle Updates

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.



More Sponsors