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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 >>

Sister becomes first African American foreman at American Tobacco Company

Ridgle describes how his sister rose to a unique position of power as the first African American foreman within the American Tobacco Company. Interestingly, Ridgle explains how his sister became a source of tension amongst African American workers, many describing her as a "slave driver."

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

But, like my sister, she's got a hell of a success story. She didn't even finish high school because Alfonso came along. And she went down there to work. My daddy got her a job downtown. And her job was, she cleaned up the white lady—you know they had different bathrooms. She cleaned up the white ladies' bathroom. That was her job. And she worked down there, I guess, a couple of years. And she started cleaning up the office. See my father had been working there a long time when she came along. And he knew a lot of people and a lot of people respected my father because he never missed a day in forty-seven years. And he was a hard worker. He did what they told him and he did it right. And a lot of people knew him. And if he went down there and asked for you a job, you pretty well were going to get it. So because of my father [unclear] started cleaning up the office. But to make a long story short, she was the first black person to pack a cigarette.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Really?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
To work as a packer. She was the first black person that they picked for a hostess. And later—they don't [unclear] . They give them nice uniforms. They give them a little money to get their hair fixed, buy shoes, stockings so they can look the part as a representative for the company. And they furnished them a nice little suit and they'd just take tours. They just keep their fingernails and their face clean. And they take tours through the factory. And, of course, they had to learn about the different [unclear] of the factories and all that.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Boy, I bet she had a wealth of knowledge.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
And, then I think she got some more [unclear] , too, because the factory manager at that time—before the union came. See they used to let guys—they'd take guys and send them out to their houses to cut their grass or do different things for them.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Outside of the factories and things, yeah.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
They'd come and punch in at the factory and they'd send them out to the house to work. Well, my sister—the manager—she cashed all of his checks, she got his car cleaned, she'd get his car clean, she went shopping with his wife, had the wife clean her house. Met his mother. His mother fell in love with her. And then they made him superintendent of the whole Durham operation. Then the union came in. And his mother came to the factory one day. She just wanted to mosey around and see what—. I don't know whether she'd ever been inside to see them manufacture. But she came down and it was raining real hard. And my sister saw her and she got an umbrella, and went out to the car and got her. And his mother—they really hit it off after that. She used to call—she used to go out to his mother's house. So when they said that they're going to have to put black in management, his mother told him, said, "You'd better do something for Katherine." And she got bricks like that. And she was the first black foreman.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Really?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Umm-hmm. In the factory.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
So the first black foreman was a woman not a man.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Umm-hmm, yeah.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
I was wondering about women's positions there versus—African American women's positions versus men.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
And you see what this [unclear] she became night manager of the whole factory.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
Wow.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Black people in this town call her a slave driver.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
They called her a slave driver?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
They still do. But she had—she—not because she was my sister, but from experiences of being in the service and then being in the penitentiary and seeing how people run things, she was no nonsense. You know, when you punched the clock she said, "You're on American Tobacco time. They pay you to work an hour. I expect you to work an hour." And she had the reputation—on a shift I think each machine had to do fifty-eight thousand cartons per shift. She could get more than that out of her people. And any time they had a big rush order they'd give it to her, you know, because she could get it done. And for that a lot of blacks said that she was an Oreo cookie. She thought she was white. She's been brainwashed. But I wasn't there and I don't know how much of that is true. But I know this. I know how she is today. And I've been knowing her all her life. She's very reluctant to lie. My daddy would not lie. And she tries to pattern herself after my father. She won't tell you no lie. If she tells you she's going to do something, she will do it. You can put your Bible on it. But if she says, "No", you can just forget about it. Now I know plenty of people who worked for her—even today and she's been retired for some years—she still has people bring her cakes. This one lady makes her bourbon balls that they make for Christmas ever since I can remember. This lady still—and she's got to be eighty some years old.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
And these are people that worked with her at American Tobacco?
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Mostly white people though. She's got lots of white friends that have farms and things. They pick beans and corn and stuff like that. And all the time they just come and bring it to her. Her birthday meant cakes, pies, presents. So she couldn't have been all bad. [Laughter] But a lot of blacks have talked—not knowing her to be my sister—have said things about her in front of me.
ALICIA ROUVEROL:
That's interesting. Ambivalent feelings, probably.
LAWRENCE RIDGLE:
Umm-hmm. And she's helped a lot of blacks because during this drug thing she was instrumental in [unclear] not firing people because they were addicts. They would send them away to Richmond or a place up there to some kind of drug rehabilitation. The company would pay for it and their jobs would be ready when they came back. And she saved quite a few fellows like that.