City Workers Strike in Durham, NC – Today and Yesterday

On September 6, 2023, sanitation workers in Durham, North Carolina went on strike to demand higher wages. For 6 days, the workers, most of whom are Black, stayed on strike and successfully brought their demands to the immediate attention of the municipal government and to the citizens of Durham: the next month in October, the City Council voted to give the lowest-paid workers in the city bonuses up to $5000. This was not the entirety of the strikers’ demands, but viewed as a start, and their struggle continues.

Today it is illegal for public employees to strike in North Carolina, according to North Carolina General Statute 95-98.1, and collective bargaining is also banned. Some coverage of the September 2023 strike indicated that this was the first illegal strike of public works employees in Durham, but this was not the first ever strike seen in the city. There were at least 2 other Black-led municipal worker strikes in Durham, in 1961 and 1966, and both of these strikes were successful in receiving their demands.

A handful of photographs depicting the strikes were published in the Durham Herald-Sun newspapers, as the newspaper deployed staff photographers to the demonstrations, but the Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, circa 1945-2002 contains many astounding photographs never before published – selections of these photographs are shown for the first time here.

The 1961 Durham, NC City Workers Strike

In August, 1961, the Durham Sun newspaper announced to readers, “If Pay Not Hiked – Garbage Men Threaten New Strike.” It stated that on the evening of August 10, 1961, 165 Black city workers from sanitation, street, and water/sewer divisions met at the Labor Temple to discuss demands for a wage plan to deliver to the city manager, George Aull, Jr. Black workers were known to meet at a building in Hayti – there was another location also very important to Durham’s labor organizing on North Mangum Street. Two weeks before, sanitation workers had walked off the job for an entire day to bring concerns about low pay and merit-based compensation structures for city employees.

The next reporting from September 5, 1961 in the Durham Sun announced that sanitation workers went on strike that morning, indicating that any talks had not met the demands of a fair pay raise. Strikers assembled at the Sanitation Department building on Camden Avenue. At the time, there were about 75 sanitation workers on the force, and most of them went on strike. As in August, the reporting explains that Black workers had been meeting and organizing at the Labor Temple, showing how important this space was for community mobilization.

Workers would ultimately stay on strike for 8 days until concessions were made, which included across-the-board pay hikes and the adoption of a merit system of promotion – a major issue of discrimination was that truck drivers were by and large white, and they were paid more as drivers. A merit-based system then made Black workers eligible for positions that had only been available to  whites.

The following photographs are dated 05 September 1961, by Charles Cooper, and are in the Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, circa 1945-2002, envelope 1-01-43-121:

men walking with protest signs

men walking with protest signs men walking with protest signs

The 1966 Durham, NC City Workers Strike

The summer of 1966 saw a much larger strike: about 235 municipal employees, mostly sanitation workers, walked off the job July 7, 1966 in an action again led by Black strikers. Other departments taking part included street cleaning, engineering, and traffic divisions. This action was supported by the Local 1194 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), whose president at the time was William J. Harris. The main impetus was again compensation and pay raises: this time, miscommunication and mismanagement in city administration caused confusion whether raises that were supposed to be across the board would instead be based on job classification.

The strike lasted for a week until work resumed July 14, 1966, and not only did striking workers receive the raises the city had already decided upon, they also won upgraded job classifications and merit raises.

The following photographs are dated 07 July, 1966, by Charles Cooper, depicting union leaders meeting with the city manager, and are in the Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, circa 1945-2002, envelope 1-01-48-305:

men sitting at a table talking men sitting at a table talking

The following photographs are dated 08 July, 1966, by Harold Moore, and are in the Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, circa 1945-2002, envelope 1-03-25-132:

men sitting on strike some with signs
This photograph was published in the Durham Morning Herald, July 9, 1966, and identifies Mr. Ervin (Goat) Bass as seated in the chair.

men walking with signs in protest men with sign on strike men with signs on strike

In April 2023, a bill was filed to “end limits on labor organizing” in the state, but the last update was that it was referred that month to the Committee On Rules and Operations of the Senate.

New in the collection: Mt. Airy toaster key fob

Square keychain fob with outline of a toaster and the letters P. and S. and the words Mt. Airy, N.C.

“In the late 1950s, the Proctor Electric Co. built an ultra-modern, $1,500,000 manufacturing plant which became the largest in the country devoted exclusively to electric automatic toasters.  In 1959, a mere two years after opening, the plant produced its 1,000,000th toaster. Close to 50 different models of toasters were made, many under the brand names of Universal, Sears and Montgomery Ward. Mount Airy soon became known as the ‘Toaster Capital of the World.’

“Proctor Electric merged with Silex Corp. in 1960 and then with Hamilton Beach in 1990. In 1998, Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex [the P.S. on the fob] closed its plant in Mount Airy.

“In the early 1950s the initial grading and excavation for building the toaster factory uncovered a large Native American burial ground. Newspaper accounts noted skeletons, pottery, projectile points, beads and pipes being unearthed and treasure seekers coming to collect these items. An open invitation was issued for the public to come and ‘hunt for relics.’ Sadly, this occurred before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 or guidance for protecting Native American grave sites or properties.”

— From “Toast of the Town – Proctor Electric and the Native American Artifact Dig” from the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

New in the collection: Last Crockett Park program


Program for Charlotte O's baseball team. It features the headline "The Fun Never Runs Out."

“A final [Southern League] championship came to Crockett Park in 1984 —  a joyous moment in the face of a tragedy to come. After a March 1985 high school playoff game, three juveniles came back to the ballpark and burned it down.

“The O’s would play that season in a makeshift stadium of 5,000 bleacher seats while a new ballpark was being built for them in Fort Mill, S.C. In 2014 the team (by now renamed the Knights) returned to Charlotte to play in downtown’s Truist Field.”

— From 

I remember vividly the night the fun finally ran out at Crockett Park. It was barely a mile from our house, and smoke and charred paper filled the air for hours.

New in the collection: Army depot tool tag

Brass tool tag with the words "William Muirhead and Charlotte Q.M. Depot."

Scottish-born William Muirhead founded the Muirhead Construction Co. in Durham in 1924.

The company’s projects included Chapel Hill’s first large apartment complex, wartime Camp Butner, the reconstruction of Tryon Palace in New Bern and — as evidenced by this brass-plated tool tag — the 1941  conversion of Ford’s former Model T and Model A plant in Charlotte into a quartermaster depot for the U.S. Army. Later uses included assembly of Nike Hercules missiles.

Today the site is home to Camp North End, a sprawling and idiosyncratic commercial complex.

New in the collection: NC astronaut on pinback

Pinback button featuring a photo of female astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.

“There were plenty of emotional moments that [Christina] Koch didn’t expect, especially when she looked down at Earth and saw a thin line of land jutting into the Atlantic that she could follow up the mouth of the New River to her hometown and her home state.

” ‘The biggest surprise I had was how amazing it was to look down and see North Carolina,’ Koch says. ‘I thought it would be kind of neat, but it had a deeper impact on me to see all the places that formed my memories, the place that formed me, to see the place where all the people who supported me and my dream to becPinback button featuring a photo of female astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.ome an astronaut lived.

“ ‘It was a profound, perspective-changing moment that I was unprepared for.’ ”

— From “Space, the Final Frontier” by Tim Peeler at NC State News (Jan. 31, 2023)

NC State alumna Koch (left) and Jessica Meir made history by completing the first ever all-female spacewalk.

New in the collection: Shoe polish ad blotter

Blotter for Nu-Shine, noting that Nu-Shine "Beautifies footwear, preserves leather, makes old shoes look new, restores color, lasts longer, looks better, and lengthens life of new shoes." The blotter includes an image of a Nu Shine bottle.

“While it will not be a year old until Nov. 15, [1922], it is now marketed in 27 states…. Our sales have shown over 100 percent increase each month.”

— B. R. Stone, president, Nu-Shine Manufacturing Co., Reidsville, N.C.

“Nu-Shine has a very large interstate business; hardly a shoe store east of the Mississippi River is without it.”

–From “The Status of Chemical Industries in North Carolina in 1926” by Frank C. Vilbrandt in Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 

“Robert Payne Richardson III assisted his father in the [Old North State smoking tobacco] factory, and after it was sold [to Brown & Williamson] he joined in 1927 the Nu-Shine Manufacturing Company, a local producer of shoe polish.”

— From NCpedia

In 1938 Nu-Shine was bought by American Products Co. and seldom heard from again.

New in the collection: Gastonia milk bottle


One-quart milk bottle with the words Sunrise Dairy, Gastonia, N.C. in red letters.

“As with cotton, the price of milk was volatile. ‘Milk wars’ were common, as distributors continuously undercut one another….

“According to the Gaston Gazette, a milk war was occurring in Shelby in 1972, when Ab Wolfe of Sunrise Dairy in Gastonia said of a proposed regulation, ‘It discriminates against the little distributor. The big boys are going to eat us up.’ ”

— From “Cleveland County Agriculture” (2016)

“Sunrise Dairy, Gastonia, N.C., ceased operation in June after 46 years as a dairy processor. Management is liquidating and disposing of equipment.”

— From “Sunrise Shutters” in Ice Cream Field and Ice Cream Trade Journal (1974)

More on North Carolina’s once prominent dairy industry, as told through its bottle lids here and here.

A second side of one-quart milk bottle with the words "Please Return Bottles Daily," and an image of a man carrying a large milk bottle on his back.

New in the collection: Fontana Dam tape measure


Measuring tape featuring colored, hand-drawn sketch of Fontana Dam.

“In order to develop atomic weapons during World War II, the federal government needed a source of energy to power the top-secret Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Out of that need the Fontana Dam, Fontana Lake and Fontana Village were born. Located in Graham and Swain counties in western North Carolina, the region is collectively known simply as Fontana….

“Completed in 1944 at a cost of over $70 million, the dam is 480 feet tall and almost ½ mile wide at its crest. The Appalachian Trail winds across the top of the dam as it makes its way from Georgia to Maine. Hikers have named the nearby trail shelter the ‘Fontana Hilton,’ since it is one of the few stopovers with hot showers nearby.

“Fontana was not designed as an overflow dam, so it has a somewhat distinct appearance: its length is accentuated by the absence of water spilling over the top. Whenever the reservoir reaches capacity, water is released downstream through spillways tunneled through the base of the dam.”

— From Fontana Dam at

I’ve seen such celluloid tape measures dating back as far as 1900, not long after the introduction of celluloid political buttons, but this one probably appeared on a souvenir shop shelf circa 1950.

New in the collection: Dickens festival pinback


Pinback button for the first Dickens fair in Raleigh. The button includes an image of a young man wearing a 19th century cap and with a red scarf around his neck.

“Clothing designers sent the grunge look down runways for spring, but thanks to the Dickens Fair, Raleigh will be full of fashionables sporting their own brand of street-urchin wear next weekend.

Fayetteville Street Mall will be transformed into Victorian England for the street fair celebrating of one of the world’s most celebrated writers.

“Dickens Pen & Inc. — an outgrowth of the Dickens Disciples, kind of a Charles Dickens fan club organized by N.C. State University adjunct English professor Elliot Engel — is offering an incentive: Anyone dressed in period costume gets into the fair free.”

–From “A Dickens of a Dress Code” by Mary E. Miller in the News & Observer (Dec. 4, 1992)

The Dickens Fair ran annually until 1999.

New in the collection: burlap fertilizer bag

Burlap bag for tobacco fertilizer featuring the words "Golden Eagle Tobacco Fertilizer," an image of an eagle, and a list of the fertilizer ingredients.

Wilmington Fertilizer Co. must have been among the most prominent of the city’s many such manufacturers, but I’ve had little luck nailing down details of its existence. This sign claims 1889 as the company’s birth, and the design of this clock suggests it was still around as late as the 1970s.

Perhaps the area’s best-known fertilizer maker was Navassa Guano Co., whose history is deeply reported here by the inimitable David Cecelski.

I strain to imagine what it was like for laborers who spent their days lifting and unloading 200-pound bags of guano.