Fighting for clean land, energy, and industry since 1974, a story of the East Tennessee Research Corporation

Around 1973, the Appalachian Student Health Coalition (ASHC) recognized that groups working in the east Tennessee area needed additional legal services not initally provided by ASHC. Thus, in the ASHC’s spirit of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted” the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC) was born in 1974. 

Founded by Vanderbilt law grads and former members of the ASHC, John Williams and John Kennedy, and funded primarily by The Ford Foundation, this organization was a public interest law firm which provided legal and technical assistance to rural community groups in east Tennessee. With the hiring of attorney Neil G. McBride, the group set about collaborating with organizations such as Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM)–now “Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment”) to build a strong alliance that centered the environmental and social but also intersectional interests of the Tennessee Valley in its work. 

ETRC proved to be a powerful instrument for this cause, going on to resist forces which would negatively impact the region. One of their earlier battles was for enforced regulation of weight limits on trucks being used to transport coal throughout the area. This group also put pressure on coal companies who were mixing different coal qualities together—a practice that, at the time, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) said was “standard.” Another meaningful success was waging a vigorous campaign to prevent James F. Hooper III’s placement on the TVA Board of Directors—something for which Hooper later filed a libel lawsuit against them. Later, they received some well-deserved satisfaction in closing this loop when President Jimmy Carter nominated the infamous “green cowboy,” David Freeman, to be Chairman of the TVA. 

Watch two clips of Neil McBride (left) and John Williams (right) discuss ETRC resistance to James Hooper III and the subsequent libel lawsuit he filed against them

One of the foremost issues they dealt with was that of strip mining. The complicated relationship of mining to the region became especially apparent during the debates surrounding the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (MSHA). Because coal fields in the region were major employers, many people were wary of measures intended to crack down on the industry. However, some citizens were extremely concerned about the effect strip mining was having on the region’s landscape and water supply. Despite resistance, the MSHA was enacted into law by President Carter in November of 1977. 

Although the ETRC was no longer in existence as of 1978, their successes laid the groundwork for future progress in the South. In fighting these battles both in and outside of the courtroom, they planted themselves squarely in the longstanding but often overlooked tradition of activism in Appalachia. 

newspaper article from the Saturday, June 4, 1977 edition of The Washington Star entitled “Getting Things Done Quietly In Appalachia

“Ralph Nader, longtime politician and Neil McBride’s former employer, wrote about this work in the Saturday, June 4, 1977 edition of The Washington Star.”

You can find out more about the East Tennessee Research Corporation in the Neil G. McBride Papers, 1977-1989 in The Southern Historical Collection. You can also listen to the Southern Oral History Program’s 2010 interview with McBride here as well as read his and John Williams’ description of their worhere on the Appalachian Student Health Coalition Archive Project website. 

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Research Assistant, Lindsey Terrell

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John McFerren of Fayette County, Tennessee — in his own words

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Project Documentarian and Oral Historian, Bernetiae Reed

One of our pilot communities for the community driven archives grant is the Appalachian Student Health Coalition. Members of the coalition are historically and currently dispersed across the country and have lived extraordinary lives, often intersecting with some of the most courageous, hard working, and brilliant people that the world has never heard of. Dana Ellis, a coalition member in 1973-1975, worked with local community activists in West Tennessee (Fayette County) and introduced us to John McFerren’s story.

John McFerren is a World War II veteran and local legend. Both he and his deceased wife, Viola, played strong roles in civil rights actions surrounding Fayette County, Tennessee. In Robert Hamburger’s book “Our portion of hell: Fayette County, Tennessee; an oral history of the struggle for civil rights,” John McFerren’s words are revealing. 

“In 1959 we got a charter called the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League. Fourteen of us started out in that charter. We tried to support a white liberal candidate that was named L. T. Redfearn in the sheriff election and the local Democrat party refused to let Negroes vote.”

Five African American men in suits

Four Freedom Fighters counsel with Attorney J. P. Estes, Source: Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, Memphis, TN https://www.memphis.edu/tentcity/movement/fayette-timeline-1958.php

 ”We brought a suit against the Democrat party and I went to Washington for a civil-rights hearing. Myself and [James F.] Estes and Harpman Jameson made the trip. It took us twenty-two hours steady drivin. We met John Doar  . . . they told us they wasgonna indict the landowners who kept us from voting . . .”

John Doar was  assigned to create civil litigation, Fayette County is included. Source: Taylor Branch Papers #05047, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH, Series 4, Folder 598, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05047/

 Just after that, in 1960, in January, we organized [timeline] a thousand Negroes to line up at the courthouse to register to vote . . . this county it was 72 percent Negroes . . . So in October and November they started putting people offa the land . . . they took your job . . . in November, we had three hundred people forced to live in tents on Shepard Towles’s land . . . White Citizen’s Counciland Ku Klux Klan started shooting in the tents . . .   

An African American family loading household items into a flatbed truck

Photo courtesy of Ernest Withers – In September 1960, after the crops were gathered, white landowners in Fayette and Haywood counties forced black sharecroppers off their land because they were trying to vote. Source:  http://orig.jacksonsun.com/civilrights/sec4_tent_city.shtml

“Tent City was parta an economic squeeze . . . Once you registered you couldn’t buy for credit or cash.”

“. . . I went into business the first of 1960, to supply the Negroes . . . had to haul everything I bought from other towns . . . the White Citizen Council in our district chased me just about every time. I had a ’55 Ford with a Thunderbird motor in it and two four-barreled carburetors on it. And it would run about 135. The sheriff told me one day, he says “Every time we get after you, I just sees two balls of fire goin over the hill. . . “ 

a black car parked on the grass

1955 Ford Thunderbird BYT568.jpg. (2015, June 21). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 14:50, February 13, 2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:1955_Ford_Thunderbird_BYT568.jpg&oldid=163946028.

During and after the late 1950s, John Doar, in his role within the Justice Department, was very involved with civil rights struggles across the South. Additionally, Black veterans were often in the forefront. Re-entry into their marginalized communities after service created a will to act. John McFerren fits this mold. But of note here, the meeting with Doar in DC probably acted as a significant catalyst for the massive voter registration events afterwards; which in turn, lead to the development of Tent City and garnered national attention, including support from Martin Luther King Jr 

A white man walks toward the camera with a crowd of policemen behind him

John Doar walks toward protesters during unrest that followed the 1963 funeral of slain black leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., Newspaper, Taylor Branch Papers #05047, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH, Series 4, Folder 599, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05047/

You can learn more about Tent City, Fayette County, and John McFerren on the University of Memphis website, Tent City: Stories of Civil Rights in Fayette County, TN. We also have some mentions in the Taylor Branch Papers here in the Southern Historical Collection.  John Doar Papers in Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library will open to researchers in June 2019 and the University of Maryland’s Thurgood Marshall Law Library has historical publications of the United State Commission on Civil Rights, which could also shed light.

An African American man standing in front of a crowd of African American men

Early photo of John McFerren smiling as he stands outside his grocery store” , Hamburger, Robert.1973. Our Portion of Hell: Fayette County, Tennessee: An Oral History of the Struggle for Civil Rights. (Photo by Michael Abrams)

 “McFerren stated the Justice Department “brought suit against the big landowners, but yet and still they did not break the boycott against me. They did something and then left and did nothin’ more.”  

 

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On the Road: The Community Driven Archives Team travels to Shaw, Mississippi, February 2019 

Chaitra Powell and I spent the last weekend of February traveling to Shaw, MS to conduct an Archivist in a Backpack Training and archival techniques workshop. We collaborated with a group working to preserve and share the history of the town of Shaw, specifically the civil rights case Hawkins vs. Town of Shaw. We met the group at the Delta Hands for Hope, pictured below, which runs programs for students and community members, but is also the base of operations for the Hawkins Project.  

 The power behind this community work is the team of Dr. Timla Washington and Jenna WelchTimla, pictured below second from the right, is currently the Community Development Coordinator in the office of Congressman Bennie G. Thompson.  

Jenna, pictured below, is the artistic director and co-creator of the company StoryWorks, which combines investigative journalism with documentary theatre.  

These dynamic women have spearheaded an enormous project that combines archival materials, art and theatre, public health policy, and a myriad of other areas to tell the story of Shaw. Their work highlights the legacy of institutional racism incorporated into town infrastructure, and the failure of equitable legislature, despite a court victory for the African American population in Shaw.   

Before this trip, I had little knowledge of Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, and I certainly didn’t know that it was the first court case that used statistics to prove discrimination. Yet I quickly realized that Shaw, MS was in an area with numerous Civil Rights activities, for example, the site (pictured below) of a Freedom School, run by local farm workers and SNCC activists in 1965. 

We flew into Jackson which is about a 2 hour drive to Shaw, so we spent a little bit of time exploring the city with Timla, Jenna, and Gloria Hawkins. While we didn’t make it to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, we did see the Medgar Evers home and observe an oral history interview with one of the lawyers on the Hawkins v. Town of Shaw case in 1967. Gloria Hawkins is one of the daughters of Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins, even though she was a teenager during the case, she has a file with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Database.    

What I didn’t realize until that tour was that Mrs. Mary Lou Hawkins was shot and killed in 1972 by a police officer, or that the Hawkins’ home was firebombed twice after the case. In the 1979 fire, Andrew Hawkins Jr., 28, and two of Gloria’s daughters, ages 8 and 11, were murdered.  

Newspaper clipping from the McComb, MS “Enterprise-Journal” March 18, 1979 reporting the house fire and deaths. 

On Saturday we were a little concerned that the weather would affect attendance to the workshop as it had been heavily raining Friday night. It was surreal to stand in the streets of Shaw and see that all the work that the Hawkins case had accomplished could not combat the legacy and strength of discrimination. The Hawkins case had mandated more robust sewer, water, and street light infrastructure as well as paved roads for the African American part of town. That was in the 1960s and early 70s.  

Infrastructure quality remains so poor in 2019 that entire sections of the town are unable to get out of their houses because of the flooding. That body of water on the edge of the neighborhood, pictured above, is a frequent occurrence, as is the flooding of homes and streets  

However, those who came to the workshops were some of the most dedicated people I have ever met. One woman, Enda Earl Moore, is the last surviving member of the court-mandated bi-racial planning commission. Mrs. Moorepictured below sitting right, took part in an oral history training session that Chaitra facilitated as part of the larger Backpack training. In this activity, pairs of participants practiced interview questions and then the group gathered to talk about what went well, and what to improve. 

Chaitra also led an imaginative description activity where one person described their childhood room and their partner drew it. This opened conversations about the language and detail used in archival descriptive work, perspective, and how this leads to access of information.  

I led one section about born digital material and another on reading archival documents. We talked about consistent file names and using conventions to ensure that files are understandable by multiple parties, as well as raising awareness of LOCKSS, file migration, and format.  The second section I led was reading archival documents, which Timla had asked for specifically. I worked with colleagues in Wilson Library to create an easy to follow set of guidelines that presented questions to “ask the documents.” Participants looked at photos and the minute books and read the document, answering questions about format, audience, and purpose. All the activities provoked important conversations about access, preservation, and ownership of narrative and voice. 

 It was an exhausting schedule, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I was moved by the warm welcome, and by the first day I almost forgot that I had to fly back to NC. We were invited back immediately, and I was sad to leave this place. Shaw has a history full of turmoil, closed businesses and dilapidated homes dot the streets. But it’s impossible to walk away from this place and these people without feeling their infectious determination and wanting to stay and be a part of their work. The power of place is startling in this townThe materials and resources from the Community-Driven Archives are only a small portion of this overall project, but I’m so glad we get to be a part of this work.  

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Research Assistant, Claire Du Laney 

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A New Project in Wilson: Untangling the Roots: Surfacing the Lived Experience of Enslaved People in the Archives

These posts are written by Lydia Neuroth, a first year graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science and a 2018-2020 Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) for the Southern Historical Collection and Archival Technical Services.  

This semester we launched a new project in Wilson Special Collections Library. Situated within Archival Technical Services and the Southern Historical Collection, my CALA project explores the ways people access (or don’t access) collections about slavery.  

We recognize that we are one of many institutions who are thinking about barriers to access, particularly when it comes to records of the enslaved. For us, our biggest hurdle is how these materials are described in our finding aids. In many cases, we are dealing with collections that have been described years ago and suffer from a lack of identified slave related content, or description that is just downright discriminatory. University of Minnesota Libraries and Princeton University Archives (just to name two) have acknowledged these legacy issues of description and begun implementing strategies and solutions that surface materials previously difficult to discover through traditional keyword searches in their collections. We benefit from their efforts and transparency about their process. I spent a great deal of my first few weeks on this project scanning the field and culling scholarship on this topic. I have read more articles about finding aids than I care to admit. The literature is helpful for grounding us in the context of the archival field. It also helps us to compare and contrast our particular issues to those of other institutions.  

Many institutions have partnered with teams in the digital humanities field to create digital databases or other web platforms that circumvent (for the most part) issues that are inherent to finding aids.I consider projects like UNC-Greensboro Libraries’ Digital Library on American Slavery and Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland some of the more robust examples offering multiple portals and access to thousands of documents about slavery in their collections. The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer Project has existed in some capacity since the 90s, and their online database was created in 2011. These projects are impressive and interesting. Many researchers have praised their capabilities of aggregating similiar information into a single access point. Unfortunately, they don’t offer the solutions we need for some of our more specific problems. Our manuscript collections are varied in content and format type. Letters, diaries, and wills don’t lend themselves to easy data collection in the ways that court records or runaway slaves ads do. It is challenging to boil down our material into data points that can be searched within a database. It is forcing us to think outside the box, literally and figuratively! 

VHS’s database allows you to search records by location. These were the results from a search I conducted for Morven Plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia.

In order to be successful, our project must be rooted in understanding our users and their various needs. Many people use our collections including undergraduates, graduates, faculty, scholars, genealogists, community members, and library staff. Some of them have been using archival finding aids for years, others have never stepped foot in a special collections library. We are asking ourselves: how do we build a system that is useful to each of these constituencies and their differing needs? Do we focus on one group? Or do we try to accommodate them all? 

Most of our work is conducted behind the scenes therefore we rely heavily on the expertise of our research and instructional team who staffs our reading room. Our conversations with them have illuminated one group on which to focus: undergraduates. We’re thinking through ways to include them in our understanding of barriers to access. Survey-style questionnaires, focus groups, one-one-one interviews, and usability studies are just some of the research methods we’ve discussed. We’re interested in gaining feedback on specific challenges they’ve encountered in the reading room or online. User feedback is an important component to this project we want to be intentional about how we listen.

To be honest, we have not yet defined an outcome of this project. The last semester was so very exploratory: understanding our collection, understanding our users, and understanding what has already been done in the field. In many ways, we are still struggling to wrap our own minds around the problems and how we can address them through practical, sustainable methods. Ultimately, we hope that our investigation will inform a comprehensive solution that will address multiple barriers to accessing these materials whether they be description, primary source literacy, physical access, or anything else that limits a user’s ability. 

That’s a lot to cover, and it’s only the highlights. Perhaps I’ll wrap up by reflecting on our experience choosing a title for this project. We gathered several images and asked a few Wilson colleagues to describe words or phrases that came to mind. As project leaders, we remained in the background and listened while our peers meditated on the heaviness that is the reality of American slavery. It was a powerful exercise. We compiled a list of these phrases and extracted four potential titles. To gather further input, we circulated our top four choices among the entire Wilson Library staff and asked them to choose their favorite. The result? Untangling the Roots 

Colleagues in Wilson Library help us pick a project title from a collection of images.

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Getting to know Navassa, a historically Black community in Brunswick County, North Carolina

Navassa, NC is one of the towns in our Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA) grant partnership. Located near the Brunswick River and Cape Fear River, Navassa is part of the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area and is less than 20 miles from the coast.   

Photograph of the Navassa town sign. Three flags, the North Carolina flag, American flag, and a third flag, stand behind the town sign.

https://portcitydaily.com/local-news/2018/07/27/minutes-from-wilmington-via-i-140-navassa-is-now-poised-for-a-development-boom/

UNC Libraries has several interesting collections that encompass the history of this small town. Importantly, these collections provide important documents that speak to the current environmental, ecological, and public health conversations that are occurring in Navassa after the EPA findings of neglect and dangerous practices of the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp Superfund.  

EPA officer stands on plastic sheeting with more than a dozen soil and rock samples to check for contamination.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3267787/North-Carolina-s-contaminated-town-Former-rice-farmers-struggle-survive-poisoned-land-decades-abuse-corporations.html.

Two important pieces of Navassa’s history are highlighted here. The first was the construction of a railroad in 1867 that connected isolated areas near the North Carolina coastline to urban regions like Charlotte, NC. Photographs and other documents about the two railroad companies, Atlantic Coastline and Seaboard Airlines, can be found in the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC.  

black and white photograph of a railroad station. Pictured are the railroad tracks, the station and station platform, and a few buildings of the town in the background

“Halifax County: Weldon (Seaboard Air Line/Atlantic Coastal Railway), circa December 1971
Black-and-White Print,” North Carolina Railroad Station Photograph Collection, circa 1896-1977 (bulk 1953-1976). Collection Number P0073. Wilson Special Collection Library, UNC

The second piece of history is the creation of a guano fertilizer factory, which links this small North Carolina town to a small, uninhabited island in the West Indies. According to the Navassa, NC town website,  

Some prudent businessmen led by Donald McRae realized the distinct advantages of locating a fertilizer factory at this location.  For years the turpentine industry had been shipping their products to the West Indies without having a product to bring home upon their return.  In 1856 large guano deposits were discovered on Navassa Island a small barren island about 15 miles off the coast of Jamaica.  McRae and his business partners made arrangements to have the returning ships loaded with the guano and consequently built the Navassa Guano Factory in 1869, which is named after the island…A small village sprung up around this fertilizer factory and in 1885 the U.S. Postal Service name this village Navassa because of the huge fertilizer plants at that location.  

Wilson Library has in its collection some of this documentation about the fertilizer and guano industries, available in the “Iron Station (N.C.) Papers, 1852-1878” and the “Marion Butler Papers, 1862-1938. The North Carolina Digital Collection at the State Library of North Carolina also has some documents that add texture to Navassa’s historic record. Documents, like the 1882 “Annual report of the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station” provides evidence of the long term chemical and ecological abuse of the area.    

The town of Navassa is much more complex than the legacy of Brownfields and ecological harm cause by chemical companies. Did you know that there is a strong Gullah-Geechee connection to this county?   

Image of a dilapidated church. The white paint is peeling off of the exterior walls and the door is barred, but the stained-glass windows are still intact, and the reds, yellows, and blue panes are vibrant.

https://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170624/navassa-church-has-rich-history

This 140-year-old chapel in Navassa, in Brunswick County, was the worship center of many former slaves after the Civil War. Today a group of locals hopes to preserve it along with their Gullah-Geechee heritage.  

Even though there isn’t a collection at UNC devoted to Navassa, NC you can piece portions of its history together from diverse sources. The town is growing and as infrastructure improves, parks, new business ventures, and a community center are rising.    

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Research Assistant, Claire Du Laney 

  

     

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Dyann Robinson and the Tuskegee Repertory Theater, 1991

Dyann Robinson is the heart and soul of the Tuskegee theater scene. She founded the Tuskegee Repertory Theater in 1991 and established a permanent home for the theater company in the former post office in downtown Tuskegee. Robinson’s impressive career as a dancer and choreographer started with her casting in the original Broadway production of Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1976.   

 

She also worked as a member of Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century, in Brussels Belgium. Check out this Huffington Post article on visual history of 20th century ballet to see Robinson’s national and international peers of elite ballerinas looked in the 1970’s and 1980’s. For a special treat, you can go to the New York Public Library and track down photographs and a videotape of a young Dyann Robinson dancing in New York City. Robinson brings her world class training and discipline to all her community theater work (writing, producing, directing, and acting) in Tuskegee, Alabama. She also sees the immense power of theater to transmit the cultural legacy of African Americans.  We are proud to house filmed versions of several of Tuskegee Repertory Theater’s productions:

I can personally attest to the toe tapping nature of Dyann Robinson’s lyrics and Bill Perry’s musical arrangements when I saw a live performance of “Booker T’s Towns” in Orlando, during the Zora Festival earlier this month. The story is told from the perspective of husband/wife pairs of each town’s leaders during their attendance at the National Business League Conference in 1913. Isaiah T. Montgomery’s wife sings about “clearing the land” when explaining how town founders transformed a swamp into a bustling black town in 1898. The Booker T. Washington sings about “getting new life” when he is spending time with these community leaders and learning about their accomplishments. the whole play builds a world where real people existed and made important contributions. It wasn’t lost on me that Hamilton was playing in same theater on the same night as Booker T.’s Towns, people that can turn history into musical theater are remarkable, and this post is a tribute to people doing it on every scale.

“Booker T.’s Towns” tells the story about HBTSA’s (Historically Black Towns and Settlements Alliance) founding towns, Eatonville, FL, Tuskegee, AL, Mound Bayou, MS, Grambling, LA, and Hobson City, AL

 

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“Here is your Heart”: Reflections on Travel to Eatonville, Florida

Members of the grant team, Chaitra and Bernetiae, made their way to Orlando last weekend for the 30th annual Zora! Festival.  

Chaitra and Bernetiae in front of the Eatonville town crest, after our archivist in a backpack workshop

We started off in Macedonia Baptist Church on Friday morning listening to longtime Eatonville supporter, landscape architect and our community champion from the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, Everett Fly, give a talk on historic preservation in San Antonio. We never get tired of him recounting how an oral history interview led to the discovery of a slave burial ground near the campus of Texas A&M in San Antonio.  

Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville and featured its residents in several of her stories. For the past 30 years community members have hosted an arts and literary festival to honor the writer and her legacy.

Afterwards, we made our way to Eatonville Town Hall to prepare for our archivists in a backpack workshop. Our community champion from Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, Dr. Michelle Robinson, arranged for us to work with historically black college and university (HBCU) students and professors from Spelman College, Prairie View A&M University, Tuskegee University, Grambling State University, Texas Southern University, Mississippi Valley State University. They will be using the backpacks to surface stories in our selected black towns. Our learning outcomes for the session included showing them the power of inter-generational and community driven gathering of cultural assets to surface stories and bring about change as well as oral history techniques, tools in the backpacks, and digital preservation best practices. The students were amazing and we can’t wait to see what kinds of projects their explorations yield.      

The rest of our time in Eatonville/Orlando was full of good food, positive people, fun activities, and reveling in all things Zora!

Highlights include a rare performance of Dyann Robinson’s stage musical, Booker T.’s Towns at the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts, Dr. Deborah Plant’s reflections on the release of Hurston’s New York Times best selling manuscript, Barracoon, and a banquet capped off with conversation between Alice Walker and a Zora biographer, Valerie Boyd. The title for this blog post comes from Ms. Walker’s comment on the impact of Zora’s work. She said [Zora’s writing] gives you your heart, in a world where people eat hearts, she gives us our own to hold and we should always cherish that gift.

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Factory Workers in Rocky Mount Fight for “A Day On, Not a Day Off”

Today, as the world celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us remember King’s full legacy – not just his legacy in the struggle to end racial segregation, but also his commitment to economic justice, his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War, and his advocacy for the American worker and deep involvement in the labor rights movement. Let us remember that in the days preceding his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, King was working with union leaders and black workers during a citywide sanitation strike. In his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered before a meeting of the AFSCME union in Memphis, the night before he was killed, King said,

Mann’s Chapel AME Church choir performing during the 2009 MLK Day celebration at Bloomer Hill Community Center, Whitakers, NC

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

There is also a story about labor embedded in the history of the observation of the annual Martin Luther King holiday. When MLK Day was first observed in 1986, it was not a paid holiday for the great majority of American workers. But this has changed slowly over the last three decades. A 2018 Bloomberg poll reported that 43% of workers in the United States marked the day as a paid holiday – an all time high. A new resource in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) sheds light on how one group of workers in Rocky Mount, N.C., fought to secure a paid holiday from their employer, so that they could celebrate MLK Day with their community.

Saladin Muhammad of Black Workers for Justice speaking at the 2005 MLK Day celebration at Bloomer Hill Community Center, Whitakers, NC

In January 1990, a group of 210 workers at the Consolidated Diesel Company plant in Rocky Mount signed a petition calling for the company to grant a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Day. Three workers went to deliver the petition to the plant’s human resources manager, but he was not in his office because he was out attending a MLK Day breakfast (an event the employees could not attend because they were working). At first, management told workers that they would never agree to grant a paid holiday because it would cost the company too much money. So the workers organized the CDC Workers Unity Committee and carried on an advocacy campaign, handing out flyers and buttons to their co-workers, and working with the Rocky Mount Ministerial Association to organize a Juneteenth rally in support of their cause. After eight months of negotiations, the company agreed to establish a paid holiday for MLK Day. In 1991, labor organizers joined with leaders of the local African American community to host the first MLK Day celebration at the nearby Bloomer Hill Community Center in Whitakers, N.C. Every year since, the workers have come together for “A Day On, Not a Day Off,” to sustain Martin Luther King Jr.’s original vision of service and action.

The SHC’s newly processed James Wrenn Papers documents the workers’ efforts to establish a paid holiday, it includes programs and leaflets from many of the MLK Day celebrations from 1991 to the 2010s, and contains VHS and digital recordings of several of these MLK Day events. The collection also documents Wrenn’s work with the People’s Coalition for Justice, the Carolina Auto, Aerospace & Machine Workers Union-UE 150, and the Bloomer Hill Community Center in Whitakers, N.C.

For more information on the James Wrenn Papers, collection #5625, please check out the online finding aid: https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05625/

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