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.

Bland Simpson’s ‘compelling love letter’

“NPR asked poets laureate, state librarians, bookstore owners and other literary luminaries… to recommend quintessential reads that illuminate where they live….

Jaki Shelton Green, poet laureate of North Carolina, [nominated] North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky by Bland Simpson:

“A stunning account of not only the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains of the Appalachian range, sprawling forests and the enchanted crests of the Atlantic coastline, but also its people: our stories, identities, histories, sufferance, memory, vision and the ancestral energy that remains inside of our communities.

“North Carolina, like many states, has a layered and complex culture. Bland Simpson has written a compelling love letter to our entwined ‘goodliest land’ amplifying our collective appreciation for the sanctuary of home and kinship.”

— From “Traveling this summer? Here are book picks for all 50 states (and then some)” at NPR (June 1)


‘Tacky’: A study in upward mobility?

“The tasteless meaning of ‘tacky’ originated in the American South, where the word originally referred to a scrawny or broken-down horse….

“Within a few decades, ‘tacky’ had extended to humans, serving as a self-deprecating label for poor white Southerners who were identified with their equine counterparts. As a North Carolinian wrote in an 1836 letter documented in Norman E. Eliason’s book ‘Tarheel Talk,’ ‘I tell them I don’t know any better for I’m a mountain tackey sartin [certainly].’

“The word then made the move from noun to adjective.  A writer from Charleston, S.C., explained in 1890 that ‘tacky’ applied to ‘persons of low ideas and vulgar manners, whether rich or poor’ who exhibit ‘an absence of style.’ Clothing, he said, was considered tacky if it was ‘cheap and yet pretentious.’

“But that gaudy style wasn’t always a source of shame. Also in 1890, a Kentucky correspondent for the journal Dialect Notes reported that ‘recently we have had “tacky parties,” where the guests dress in the commonest and most unfashionable costumes.’  Such parties (often featuring awards for tackiest costumes) persisted throughout the South, particularly in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.”

— From “The Gauche Origins of the Word ‘Tacky’ “ by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (July 18, 2014)

Damndest blurb I’ve ever written!

The title of North Carolina native Jason Mott‘s “Hell of a Book” — recent winner of the National Book Award for fiction — reminded me of a story (possibly apocryphal, though perhaps not probably) about the acclaimed writer and UNC professor  Max Steele.

A former student sent a copy of his new novel to Max for a blurb. Read it, hated it, wrestled with how to comment without dishonoring himself. His solution: “Damndest book I ever read!”

I hope the author was pleased — after all, that’s how Faulkner (in a letter to his Aunt Bama)– described his own “The Sound and the Fury.”


That time at a demography dinner party….

“Picture this: You’re at a demography dinner party. (Let’s pretend we can have dinner parties again.)

“And the demography enthusiast next to you says, ‘Hey! Got a question for you. Which county in North Carolina is most like the state?’

“How would you answer?”

— From “Which county in NC is most like the state?” by at Carolina Demography (Nov. 12, 2021) 

Spoiler alert: It’s not Orange.

h/t Charlotte Ledger

Check out what’s new in the North Carolina Collection.

Several new titles just added to “New in the North Carolina Collection.” To see the full list simply click on the link in the entry or click on the “New in the North Carolina Collection” tab at the top of the page. As always, full citations for all the new titles can be found in the University Library Catalog and they are all available for use in the Wilson Special Collections Library.

The North Carolina Emergency Bank Holiday of 1933

Newspaper headline "All Banks Closed in State and Nation"

The Great Depression hit North Carolina hard, effectively lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 to the beginning of World War II in 1941. During the early 1930s, about ¼  of all North Carolinians were on relief programs. Between 1929 and 1933, gross farm income dropped almost 50 percent, and cotton and textile wages declined 25 percent.

The state’s banking industry was devastated. Between June 1927 and June 1932,  over 200 banks in North Carolina failed, having lost over $264 million. “[S]till, about the safest place to keep one’s money is in a bank,” the Independent of Elizabeth City reasoned. As 1933 began, the Great Depression showed no signs of stopping.

Runs on banks increased in early 1933, as people in cities like Asheville and Charlotte withdrew their money and left banks with little to no reserves. On February 14, 1933, Michigan became the first state to declare a bank holiday, closing all banks for a week to prevent sudden withdrawals and bank failures. This led panicked customers across the country to pull money from their banks, which, in turn, caused other states to declare bank holidays.

North Carolina was one of the last states to take action. On March 3, legislators passed a law providing the state Commissioner of Banks with authority to declare a bank holiday for state-chartered banks (as opposed to national banks, those that are under the authority of the Comptroller of the Currency). As the Roanoke Rapids Herald reported, lawmakers crafted the legislation despite few banks requesting a bank holiday. The Commissioner was also given authority to limit withdrawals from individual banks.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shortly after inaugurationUsing Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’ free, online database of scanned American newspapers, it’s possible to research and learn more about the bank holidays of 1933.

By March 4, 1933, the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, banks nationally held about $4 billion in liquid funds and reserves. Accountholders were seeking to withdraw $43 billion, according to The Independent of Elizabeth City.

On his 3rd day in office, March 6, FDR declared an immediate, national bank holiday, beginning that day and lasting until March 9, closing every nationally chartered bank across the country. For North Carolina, the order was modified to “resume certain functions as may be necessary to meet community needs”—i.e., for food, salary and wage payments, and other essentials. One state bank announced it would be open for one hour a day to allow customers to access their safe deposit boxes or exchange dollars for smaller denominations or coins.

Notice from the State Trust Co. announcing it will be only open for one hour a day to make change and allow use of safety deposit boxes

North Carolinians handled the sudden bank holiday with cautious optimism. A Greensboro judge adjourned superior court because “this is no time to be holding court…” Hendersonville residents were “in good spirit,” accepted the banking holiday calmly, and believed theirs would “be one of the first cities in the state” to return to normal. The Roanoke Rapids Herald reported “more optimism and confidence than in some time” among local businesspeople. 

On March 9, Roosevelt extended the national bank holiday indefinitely, while also creating a path for some national banks to reopen, provided they were considered solvent by the comptroller of the currency. On the same day, North Carolina governor J. C. B. Ehringhaus extended the state bank holiday for another week. 

Newspaper headline "Bank Holiday is Modified; Local Folks Confident"Despite the bank holiday extension, North Carolinians were confident their financial institutions would be able to reopen as soon as Thursday the 16th, the end of the bank holidayBoth the Treasury Department and the state banking commissioner noted that if state or national banks were solvent, they could resume operations despite the nationally mandated bank holiday. Hendersonville residents had a “very optimistic attitude…none of the hysteria or uneasiness, prevalent before the banking holiday was declared, will be displayed.”

Newspaper caption "A New Feeling of Safety and Confidence Turns Scowls to Smiles in All the Albemarle"Public confidence in financial institutions seemed to be slowly returning. Two banks in Halifax County reopened on the 16th as expected. The State Trust company received a surprising amount of deposits on that day, according to “particularly well pleased” bank officials.

Other banks took longer to reopen. The Bank of Manteo reopened more than a week later. The First & Citizens National Bank of Elizabeth City finally reopened on April 1, after its officers discussed the possibility of conservatorship

Newspaper headline "U.S. Banking Restrictions Are Relaxed"

The First National Bank of Salisbury reopened in early June, nearly three months after the bank holiday. That month, FDR signed the 1933 Banking Act, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, insuring bank deposits in the case of bank failures. By July of the following year, all but two North Carolina banks had joined the FDIC.

For many residents throughout the state, despite the bank holiday and new financial regulations, the Great Depression continued. In August 1933, the Polk County Bank & Trust Company closed its doors and went into “voluntary liquidation”—one of the first banks to close since the bank holiday. The town of Scotland Neck was completely “without banking facilities” well into September 1933. 

The Independent of Elizabeth City named 1933 “one of the darkest and most trying” years in North Carolina history, but because of North Carolinians’ strong resolve and decisive action across all levels of government, people entered 1934 filled with optimism about the years to come.

Space Shuttle vet and UNC-CH alum dies

Challenger postcard with cancellations stamps noting the cards trip in space.
From North Carolina Collection Gallery. Gift of William and Virginia Powell.

UNC-CH alumnus and former NASA astronaut William “Bill” Thornton, who used his own inventions to measure and combat the ill-effects of microgravity while on board two Space Shuttle missions, has died at the age of 91. 

Born in Faison, N.C., Thornton received two degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill–a B.S.from in physics in 1951 and an MD in 1963–before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.  He was selected by NASA to be part of its second group of scientist-astronauts known as the XS-11 class in 1967. NASA told the group that they would likely wait for some time before heading into space. 

Portrait of William Thornton from 1951 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook
Portrait of William Thornton from 1951 UNC Yackety Yack.

Sixteen years passed before Thornton launched on the first of his two Space Shuttle flights as a mission specialist aboard the Challenger on August 30, 1983.  Thornton was added to the crew primarily to observe their susceptibility to space adaptation sickness (SAS), a condition that affects the vestibular system as the human body adapts to microgravity.  Thornton’s work on the 1983 flight led him to invent a treadmill for use aboard the Space Shuttle.  The 1983, six-day STS-8 mission also deployed a weather and communication satellite and carried more than 260,000 stamped envelopes.   

On April 29, 1985, Thornton again launched aboard the Challenger for his second space flight.  The seven-member crew worked in two teams around the clock on more than a dozen experiments in the Spacelab module.  They conducted experiments using the first laboratory animals in space and exercised on the space shuttle treadmill invented by Thornton.     

Thornton served 27 years with the space agency before retiring in 1994. During the course of his two expeditions, he logged 13 days, one hour and sixteen minutes in space.  For his service to the nation’s space program, Thornton received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, and two NASA Space Flight Medals. 

VP Sanford? How serious was JFK?

“[Robert] Caro’s best but most controversial piece of evidence [that Lyndon Johnson would be replaced on the 1964 ticket] is the 1968 book by JFK’s former secretary, Evelyn Lincoln.

“Lincoln wrote that in mid-November of 1963 JFK said at her desk that ‘there might be a change in the ticket.’

“A week later, JFK told Lincoln that he was thinking about North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford, she recalled, adding that the president told her: ‘But it will not be Lyndon’…

Tom Lambeth, a Sanford gubernatorial aide,  recalled last week that he heard the chatter. He even said he can think back to the day he picked up another Sanford aide, Skipper Bowles (the father of Erskine) at the airport after Bowles had been to the White House.

“ ‘Bowles said something about the idea that Terry might be the VP,’ Lambeth recalls.

“But Lambeth, now 77, said neither Sanford nor Sanford’s staff thought it would come to fruition….”

— From “Caro revives Kennedy-Johnson feud” by Jonathan Martin and John F. Harris at Politico (May 13, 2012)

‘Destroyed by the white citizens of Wilmington….’

The attention rightly heaped upon David Zucchino’s “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy” reminded me of this Miscellany post from seven years ago. (Sorry the eBay image of the printing-press fragment being auctioned hasn’t survived.)

I’ve seen a lot of remarkable North Caroliniana on eBay but nothing as breathtaking as this supposed artifact, inscribed “destroyed by the white citizens of Wilmington,” offered by a dealer in Oreland, Pa.

Here’s a reaction from historian Tim Tyson, who has written extensively about the black-owned Daily Record’s role in the nation’s only coup d’etat: “If it is the real thing, I sure would like to have it myself… I don’t know what it might be ‘worth,’ but I think it belongs well south of Pennsylvania!”

Anyone care to speculate on the initials, which seem to be “J.H.T.J.”?