by Jonathan Michels
In 2013, I interviewed Earline Parmon about the legacy of a landmark interracial labor union in Winston-Salem called Local 22. Many of the union leaders were African American women who pushed for economic, gender and racial equality at the height of segregation.
“They were caring women, they strong women and they wanted to make a change,” Parmon told me.
What I assumed would be a standard interview between a journalist and a lawmaker about history actually revealed a lot about Parmon herself and her own journey of becoming a strong, caring woman who never stopped pushing for change.
Parmon’s sudden death last week at age 72 reminded me of our brief interviews together and the importance of documenting the history of our community.
The following is an excerpt from that interview.
What was life like growing up in Winston-Salem during both the height of the tobacco industry and Jim Crow segregation?
As a youngster growing up, RJ Reynolds was one of the basic industries in terms of the economy. It used to be referred to as “Papa Reynolds” because it was paternalistic in that the leaders of that company decided on what would happen in Winston, when it would happen and how it would happen.
I lived a couple of blocks on East Fourth Street from the [Reynolds] headquarters and many of the surrounding factories. I woke up in the mornings smelling menthol, went to sleep smelling menthol. All my life, growing up, that’s a memory I will never forget.
I remember the black signs and the white signs. One of my most vivid memories [was] when Eisenhower was running for president [and] he came to the train station. Even then when you went down on the platform, black people were herded this way and white people that way. [There] was a water fountain in there that said “colored” and “white.” I rebelled against that and many times would drink out of the white fountain just because they said I couldn’t. I would drink out of it and then run before the porter got us. He would know I was coming because I would sort of do it everyday and he would be at the door I came in last time. We played sort of hide and seek.
I do remember because of Jim Crow getting books at school that had no covers. Many of the pages were torn out. We always got the short stick of education. In spite of that, our parents and the leaders knew that education was the key to changing Jim Crow and segregation. I very much remember Jim Crow and the impact of segregation on this city and throughout the South.
During the 1940s, tobacco workers at RJ Reynolds organized to form Local 22, an interracial labor union, led mostly by African American women. What impact did Local 22 have on the African American community and how did its members shape your own perspectives?
The black women at RJ Reynolds, after having worked in horrible and devastating conditions for so long, just decided that they [not only] had a right to work but they also had a right to decent and clean, healthy working conditions. They knew about unions in the North and how they made a difference and you were able to negotiate for certain rights and certain benefits. Knowing they had to be providers for their families, don’t quit the job but try to make it better. They knew that trying to bring a union into Winston-Salem particularly at RJ Reynolds was like David taking on Goliath. They were fed up and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Together, they could make a difference.
Everything I am in terms of my community involvement, my political involvement is because of Velma Hopkins and Mazie Woodruff. They were caring women, they were strong women and wanted to make a change.
I started going to meetings with Miss Hopkins. She sort of embraced me and mentored me as a youngster. I had gone to Goler [Metropolitan AME Zion] Church on East Fourth Street when Dr. [Martin Luther] King was there and the church was crowded. Miss Hopkins saw me trying to get in and she pulled me in up front. All these things just endeared me to her. I just followed her. I learned from her. I sat under her tutelage and saw how strong of a black woman she was, in every aspect whether it was voting rights or jobs.
I remember Mazie Woodruff and Velma Hopkins going to the board of county commissioners. Can you imagine black women standing up and questioning them? One particular time it was about closing [Kate B. Reynolds Memorial Hospital], the only black hospital in Winston-Salem. We called it Katie B.
Some legislation had been changed without any input from the community that actually changed the focus of that hospital. I went with Miss Hopkins and Mazie Woodruff and a couple of other women. They [got] up talking and there were all white men sitting there. I would just be cowering. I would be so scared because they didn’t mince words. They would say, “You can’t continue to do black folk like this.”
Miss Hopkins had such an impact on my life. It’s who I am today in terms of my belief system, my value system and my moral system and standing up for what’s right without fear of being intimidated. I don’t know of any aspect of life making it better for the African-American community that she and Mazie didn’t touch. I had the honor and the pleasure of serving with Mazie Woodruff as a county commissioner. I can’t really say how awesome that was.
Are workers today facing some of the same issues that workers did at RJ Reynolds during the 1940s? How have the various social justice movements that followed Local 22, like the Black Panther Party and Occupy Winston-Salem, worked to continue their victories?
The struggle of working rights, human rights and civil rights sort of go hand in hand. One is no good without the other. If you have a right to vote and then they will provide a place and accessibility to it. The labor union was important for people to be able to have a decent wage so that they could provide for their families, economic rights are just as important as civil rights. One really is not very good without the other. You can vote but you can’t work. Once you work and make money and you can’t go where you want to, to eat where you want to, take your children to movies or art museums and expose them to different things… it was very key that once the labor movement really started here that the civil rights, voting rights, desegregation of the public places…[they] just had to be addressed.
I see as one movement or one group make improvements or make things better and they sort of dissipate, that other groups have come forward to pick up the mantle.
The Black Panther Party for instance, got the support of people like Dr. Oliver, Dr. Virginia Newell and Miss Lee Faye Mack, who was another person that emerged from that movement of desegregation and racism as a leader from the grassroots. When the Black Panthers [were active], I know that that was another scary time in this city because the police and the other people would say to black folk: “They’re going to get everybody killed because we’re going to come through here shooting. Children, everybody gonna get killed.” People were afraid to stand up. The Panthers had so many programs that benefited the community, it drew in your business people and your professional people. They started working together. As you saw those people working together with your ministers, it made such a big impact because it wasn’t as easy to divide people.
I remember Occupy early of last year, had a movement dealing with RJ Reynolds. I can’t remember whether it was wages or working conditions, but trying to still say a union is needed. RJ Reynolds doesn’t want to hire people anymore. They hire casual laborers. They have gotten rid of people that have worked many years and now, what they do is hire people through employment companies so they don’t have to pay benefits, health insurance and not as great a wages as they used to.
Now, you have what we call the working poor. We are fastly approaching poverty at the levels of Mississippi and Arkansas, the Deep Southern states where poverty is even worse than here. I can’t dare to even think about it. I shudder when I think about it. Some regions of the South there are people living in worse conditions in terms of economic and civil rights justice. Right here in Forsyth County, a report came out that one out of every five children under the age of 10 go to bed hungry. Right here in this county.
I attended that gathering right downtown on Fourth Street. We’re talking about Local 22 from the 1930s and 1940s when people were coming together for better wages and better working conditions. Contrast that to 2012 and people are still having to come together because everything that had been worked for and gained has been dismantled. As the song says, “The beat goes on.” You can never get relaxed and take your eyes off of the prize. If you do, all the gains you made will soon be gone and you won’t understand why.
Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist based in Winston-Salem. He is working on a grant-funded documentary history of social justice activism in North Carolina.