My conversation with folk singer and social activist Guy Carawan had gone in surprising directions. When I called him, now almost a decade ago, I had really just wanted to know more about his journey to his father’s homeplace in Pamlico County, N.C. in the summer of 1953.
In the end, though, I discovered a remarkable story about a menhaden fishermen’s labor union, a bitter strike and a fish factory burning down (though nobody ever proved that it was arson).
This is the third in a series of four posts about commercial fishermen’s efforts to organize labor unions and cooperatives on the North Carolina coast between 1947 and 1953.
Of course I wanted to learn more about that side of the menhaden industry’s history. Over the years, I have written two or three articles about the history of menhaden fishing in N.C., but Carawan’s account gave me a glimpse at a side of the industry that I had never seen before.
After talking with Carawan, the first thing I did was go in search of old issues of the local newspaper, the Carteret County News-Times.
You can now find old issues of the News-Times at Digital NC, a collaboration among the N.C. Dept. of Natural and Cultural Resources, the UNC Chapel Hill Library and the N.C. Digital Heritage Center. At the time I was doing this research, I found the historic copies of the News-Times on microfilm at the Carteret County Public Library in Beaufort.
Those old newspapers revealed a coastal community in a state of turmoil. According to the newspaper’s accounts, the International Fur & Leather Workers Union (IFLWU) had been organizing menhaden workers in Beaufort and Morehead City since at least the spring of 1952.
As part of the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” union drive, other national labor unions had also been organizing in nearby industries, including a garment company in Morehead City, as well as in dozens of lumber mills, tobacco factories and slaughterhouses elsewhere in eastern North Carolina.
A School Boycott
Judging from the stories in the News-Times, even local race relations stood on tremulous ground. In addition to the labor union activism (which was largely, if not all, black fishermen), I discovered that, in the winter of 1952, black children had also staged a school boycott to protest the dilapidated condition of the Queen Street High School in Beaufort.
The student boycotters included many of the menhaden fishermen’s sons and daughters.
The school boycott was an act the likes of which nobody local had seen before. The school band had even staged a protest parade down Front Street.
That being the height of McCarthy Era and the Cold War, some white business leaders began to see Communists everywhere.
Fishermen’s Local 710
As I noted, according to the News-Times, the union organizing campaign in the menhaden industry started in the spring of 1952.
At that time, the IFLWU established Local 710 in Beaufort and Morehead City. Any local menhaden fisherman or menhaden factory worker was eligible to join the union, and they did—by the dozens and then by the hundreds.
After the menhaden companies refused to negotiate with union members, the fishermen held a series of meetings at a local Baptist church to decide what to do. They voted to go on strike in May of ‘52.
By June 6, only one of the three boats in Beaufort By-Products’ fleet had enough crewmen left to go to sea, and that was only because they consolidated the company’s white hands into a single crew.
Only three of the six boats in Beaufort Fisheries’ fleet were working.
At the same time, approximately 200 menhaden fishermen and factory workers went on strike at three companies in Southport, in Brunswick County, which was the other center of the menhaden industry in North Carolina.
Roughly 21 men made up a typical menhaden fishing crew, by the way.
The strike moved up and down the Eastern Seaboard, too. In Reedsville, Virginia, another big menhaden fishing port, 800 fishermen put down their nets and stayed home. According to a report in the News-Times, only three of the port’s 70 boats had been able to leave the docks.
“A Civil Rights Agenda”
W. H. “Piggy” Potter, one of Beaufort Fisheries’ owners, fumed.
I knew Piggy a little bit when I was young. He was an endearing character and a good friend to one of my great-aunts, who knew him a lot better than I did. But he proudly called himself an “unreconstructed Rebel,” and he could not abide a social order threatening to be turned upside down.
“Our boys are being misled,” the News-Times quoted him. He accused the union of being Communist and, probably just as bad in Piggy’s eyes, as having “a civil rights agenda.”
When Local 710’s leaders came to him and other local menhaden industry leaders, they made demands for higher wages, better working conditions, and tougher safety regulations.
Piggy and other owners refused to recognize the union’s right to speak for the fishermen. They also attempted to recruit replacement workers. Tensions heightened further.
The striking workers may have met resistance in some quarters, but they clearly had a good deal of community support, too.
Local black women, for one, organized an auxiliary to support the striking workers. At one point, the women met at Purvis Chapel, a historic AME Zion church in Beaufort. There they hosted a guest speaker from out of town, Viola Brown.
Brown was an African American woman who had been a leader in a pioneering tobacco workers’ union in Winston-Salem, N.C. She also played a leadership role in the National Negro Labor Council, a group of black labor activists that had been founded in Cincinnati in 1951.
Later a News-Times reporter covered a meeting at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which is also in Beaufort. The church’s pastor spoke in support of the strikers, as did Mrs. Mary E. “Mother” Johnson, the church’s matriarch.
Even the News-Times’ editor sympathized with the strikers. In an editorial on July 25, 1952, he conceded, “the cause of the menhaden fishermen may be worthy.”
But he also warned that the fishermen damaged their cause because the national IFLWU had a reputation for having Communist leadership.
He was right about that: the IFLWU did have a reputation for having Communist leadership. And indeed, justly or not, the CIO expelled the IFLWU in a vaunted purge of purported Communists from the labor organization that happened later in 1952.
Despite the lack of CIO support, IFLWU organizers made another try to establish Local 710 the following summer.
That was the background for the trio of young folksingers racing out of Beaufort while smoke billowed out of the fish factory, spectators crowded the causeway and the sun rose beyond the salt marshes.
To be continued—next up: part 4: fishermen’s labor unions & cooperatives spread from Southport to Swan Quarter