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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lawrence Ridgle, June 9, 1999. Interview K-0144. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Opportunities for African Americans and father's job at American Tobacco Company

Ridgle speaks at length about his father's work with the American Tobacco Company during the first half of the twentieth century. An employee of 47 years, Ridgle's father had one of the better positions for African Americans at that time. In addition, Ridgle describes his own four-day employment with the American Tobacco Company and he acknowledges the unique role of African American women as employees.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lawrence Ridgle, June 9, 1999. Interview K-0144. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Now when you were talking about your dad working at American Tobacco—he worked in a storage house. Is that right?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Umm-hmm.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Now what kinds of jobs would have been available to him as an African American at that time.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Well, at that time [unclear] he had one of the better jobs for blacks that were uneducated. And, in fact, the storage department was like—. I think they called it the supply department. And downtown where they manufactured, actually manufactured the cigarettes, they didn't have any blacks in no positions. I remember as a kid I used to go down there and where they make the cigarettes, the machine that made the cigarettes, blacks couldn't work in there. Only white ladies worked up there and fix-its, guys that fixed the machine when it malfunctioned or something. And I used to go—it used to be so hot in that factory because—. In fact, my sister worked down there. In fact, the American Tobacco Company used to be like a family orientated job. When they needed somebody to work they didn't necessarily like go to the employment office or put out some kind of, put it in the paper or something. They asked people on the job, "Have you got a child or you got somebody in your family that needs a job?" So everybody that used to work there until the union got there it was more or less—everybody was kin. But blacks in the manufacturing department where the cigarettes were actually made, they did not work. There were some jobs like getting the tobacco ready to be processed for manufacturing. Now they had one or two guys and those were exclusive jobs that you could get because they used to put rum and a real good smelling syrup—they used to put it in the tobacco. They had a mix. They would mix it and then toast it before it would go to the machines to be put into a cigarette. And they had about two or three fellows that I can remember that kept those jobs and retired from them. Now those were the best jobs. The blacks down there, they did all the manual labor like getting the tobacco off the box cars, off of the trucks and before they got thrashing machines, they used to have hundreds of women. They worked on the line there. Tobacco would come in after it had been re-dried and they would have to take the stems up with their hands. And they had long conveyor belts with women on both sides. And it was almost like a slave house. They had a young white foreman. And they would build a platform in between these belts. And these guys walked up and down that belt pushing people. And they didn't line the [unclear] . They couldn't go get a drink of water. They did give them like one break in the morning and one break in the afternoon. And the rest of the time they push, push, push. It's so hot in there. It was so hot in there that everybody would be wet with sweat. And as a kid I used to go down there to visit and I don't think—. Well, they used to call it the American Tobacco Company. They used to call it the slave house because they really—the people had to work just like machines to keep up with the machines. And it was a very hot and humid in there. And mostly there were women. And when I got a job down there years later—. In fact, I was always big and I was strong because I played sports and stuff. And my daddy got me a job. I must have been about thirteen, but I was big. And the place that we had to work it was doing what they called the tobacco season, which starts around, I guess about—. Well they start coming in from Georgia—tobacco starts coming in about, I guess, about June, maybe May—late May or June. And they work a season up to about Christmas. And you talking about hard work. They didn't have motor lifts. And the tobacco that came in from Georgia it came on a boxcar, big trucks. And, you know, tobacco is perishable and you've got to rush to get it—a certain moisture you have to get out of it or it will rot—before you put it in them barrels. And we used to get that stuff, man, them sheets. Oh, them sheets weighed three hundred pounds. And we used to stack them up to a twenty-foot ceiling. And because I was young, and strong and eager to work, the older guys—which blacks always do. A young guy comes in, they don't like sort of show him, you know, show him the ins and outs out a job. They'll try to break his back. And I didn't know it. You know, that two people were picking up the sheet. That if I pick this side and I pick up first, I just turned the wheel over there. And when you pick up you'll pick up the whole thing, I just guide it. And that's what they used to do to me. I worked down—my daddy worked down there forty-seven years. My sister worked down there forty-four years.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Wow.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
I think I worked about four days. Yeah, I quit. It was just too hard for me. And the heat—your shoes would get full of water, you know. And they didn't know nothing. And the foreman—they stayed, they worked about an hour and another guy would come. He'd go back and change shirts and stuff and come back maybe another hour later. But they didn't stay in that building but one hour at a time. But the blacks, they stayed down there all day. And when the union came motor lifts—I think the thrashing machine came from England somewhere—way, way big. Manufactured them or invented them. They put about—in both factories [unclear] they put about three thousand women in the street who had been working there for years.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Wow. You mean once the thrashing machines came in.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Yeah.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Yeah.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Stemming machine, thrashing machine. There was—I remember in poor neighborhoods black women that had jobs at the American and at Liggett-Myers—they wore—they even had uniforms they used to wear. And I thought there were—. They used to wear these baby type bonnets. It was almost like a nurse's cap. They were starched, and ironed and stood up. And they wore—I forgot the color of the uniforms. I believe it was blue and white. But they were always starched and they stood up like they might have had crinoline slips or something under them—and big white aprons. And everybody—I used to hear men talk. If you wanted a girlfriend, you had to get you one of those American Tobacco women or one of those Liggett-Myers women. That was the thing. And they were kind of—I think that was the first ever I saw women trying to be independent because they were making the same money as men were making, black men.