In today’s post I want to introduce a special collection of historical photographs. They come from Greenville, N.C.’s longtime newspaper, The Daily Reflector, and they provide a remarkable view of what life was like in Greenville and the rest of Pitt County in the years between 1949 and about 1975.
The publishers of The Daily Reflector, the Whichard family, donated more than 7,500 of the photographs to Joyner Library at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville. In a Herculean effort, the library’s staff scanned them and made them available on-line so that we can all enjoy them.
Here in the middle of the Covid pandemic, I find it especially nice to be able to look at them on-line since I’m staying so much closer to home than usual and I’m not visiting archives or libraries as much as I usually do.
I was surprised how moving I found them. They are not what I expected at all.
Because the photographs appeared originally in a daily newspaper, I thought I’d find endless pictures of policemen leading convicted felons from the county courthouse, gruesome snapshots of car wrecks, politicians cutting ribbons and other not especially inspiring scenes of that kind.
But the photographs in The Daily Reflector Collection aren’t like that at all, or at least most of them aren’t.
Instead, I found them to be much more often about the small, often intimate moments in the day-to-day lives of Pitt County’s people: a child’s first day at school, teenagers discovering rock ‘n roll, a choir at a tent revival, victims of the polio epidemic learning to stand in their braces, Girl Scouts selling cookies and countless other images that remind us of the daily stuff of life back then.
There is a delicacy, a kind of tenderness even, in how The Daily Reflector’s photographers rendered those everyday moments in people’s lives.
At least for those of us of a certain age who grew up in eastern North Carolina, The Daily Reflector‘s photographs also remind us of an era that has passed and the people that we have loved and lost who were part of that time and place.
I look at these old photographs and I see the faces of the people who I grew up with, the ones who were part of that generation and that way of life. The images make me remember little things about those people that I had forgotten. At times I can almost hear their voices.
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To some degree, The Daily Reflector’s photographs chronicle the world of my early childhood. When I was growing up, we lived in another, much smaller town in eastern North Carolina, 80 miles from Greenville.
Our lives were mostly there, but we also spent a lot of time in a little rural community nearby that was where my grandmother lived.
Many of the photographs from The Daily Reflector could have been taken where I grew up, but we also used to visit Greenville now and then and I remember how it looked in those days.
At that time, Greenville was still a relatively small, agricultural market town. Located on the banks of the Tar River, the town still only had 16,724 residents in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even in 1960, when I was born, only 22,000 residents lived there.
Though not at all a big city, Greenville had an outsized importance in a large swath of eastern North Carolina in those days.
That was due partly to the presence of ECU. Founded in 1907 to prepare young white men and women for the teaching profession, the school often attracted faculty who had fresh ways of thinking about things and a cosmopolitan worldview (despite school leaders’ best efforts to discourage that kind of thing!) Many of those faculty members were women.
In those days, ECU teacher graduates found jobs in country and small-town schools throughout eastern North Carolina, carrying those new ideas and that wider sense of the world with them.
For that reason, my mother had role models that were suffragists, founders of public libraries and women’s club leaders. They made sure my mother knew Edna St. Vincent Millay poems by heart, and one read Thomas Mann’s classic novel The Magic Mountain to my mother’s class every day after lunch.
I don’t think people read The Magic Mountain much any more, but its themes run deep, including the nature of illness and healing and the philosophy of time. No teacher in my generation ever read such a novel to us.
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ECU was just one factor in Greenville’s importance in eastern North Carolina though. The other reason was its tobacco market.
Today Greenville is a bustling city with nearly 100,000 residents and a diversified economy built largely on ECU’s medical center, the pharmaceutical industry and a growing number of high-tech industries.
But when these photographs were taken, tobacco was still king. In those decades, Greenville was one of four towns in eastern North Carolina that vied for the title of the world’s largest tobacco market.
The other three towns were Wilson, Kinston and Rocky Mount.
Greenville’s first tobacco warehouse opened in 1891. Within a few years, several other warehouses opened, including one that was the largest tobacco trading business in the world for a time. Farmers sold and buyers bought tens of millions of pounds of tobacco there.
At the time of these photographs, tobacco auction houses, tobacco brokerages and tobacco factories still crowded Greenville’s streets.
Year after year, local businesses shipped endless trainloads of tobacco leaf to the big cigarette companies in Durham, Winston-Salem and Richmond that dominated the world’s tobacco industry.
And as has been said many a time, tobacco wasn’t just a way of making a living– it was a way of life.
Of course, with what we know now about tobacco smoking, and what tobacco farming does to the land, we can’t help but look at that way of life differently now than people did back then.
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One Saturday 15 or 20 years ago, my friend Tim Tyson and I drove down to the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly, 40 miles west of Greenville. The museum was sponsoring an old-fashioned hog killing and we thought it would make for a nice day trip.
The museum held the hog killing so that older folks might have the chance to show their children and grandchildren a little piece of what life was like in eastern North Carolina when they were young.
Tim and I enjoyed the drive and the hog killing, and neither of us will ever forget the lunch of lights stew we had. You make lights stew with the hog’s lungs and liver, and some people consider it a great delicacy. But what I remember most about that day was our walk through the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.
While we waited for lunch to begin, Tim and I wandered through the museum, which is really quite fascinating and worth a trip.
While we were there, we looked at historical photographs of tobacco farming and tobacco markets in eastern North Carolina, and we visited rooms full of antique plows, tools and other farm equipment.
The hog killing’s guests crowded the museum that day. I got the impression that most had grown up on tobacco farms in eastern North Carolina. As we strolled through the museum, I listened to their reactions to the exhibits.
I heard them say again and again how hard a tobacco farmer’s life was and how poor they had been, and how much that life took out of their mommas and poppas, and sometimes them, too.
They all seemed more than a little grateful that those days were gone.
But it was complicated: I remember, in particular, an older woman who was reciting to her granddaughter a long list of the people in her tobacco farming family that had either “died of hard work” or succumbed to lung cancer, emphysema and other tobacco-related diseases.
The woman looked as strong and weathered as a mountain, but I could hear the deep sense of loss in her voice, and I detected a few tears running down her cheek.
But I knew she didn’t shed those tears just because she grieved for those loved ones– she said as much to her granddaughter. She cried as much, she said, because the museum’s exhibits reminded her of the joys and pleasures of that life, despite all the loss and hardships.
Maybe she was remembering the tobacco’s sweet aroma when it was curing, and the songs they used to sing in the tobacco barn when they were getting tired and needed a little pick-me-up.
Maybe she was remembering the companionship of sharing the work with her friends and neighbors, which is mostly what my mother described when she told me stories about working in tobacco when she was a child.
Maybe the woman at the museum was remembering the gala opening of the tobacco market when they went to sell their tobacco in town, and of course she had to be remembering the new dress or new pair of shoes her father bought her every fall with his tobacco money.
While I stood next to her, she told her granddaughter how she used to sit and sort tobacco next to her own grandmother at harvest time, the two of them working side-by-side. “You don’t see that no more,” she said.
This is something I have learned: when people in eastern North Carolina say, as I have been told a thousand times, we were poor but we always had enough to eat, they don’t really mean that they always had enough to eat.
What they really mean is what the Good Book tells us: one does not live by bread alone.
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The Daily Reflector Collection includes hundreds of photographs of the tobacco industry– scenes of tobacco farms, tobacco auctions, tobacco factories, tobacco festivals and much else.
But tobacco wasn’t everything in those days, even in Pitt County, and The Daily Reflector’s photographs reveal hundreds of other little slices of life back in that day and time as well.
I can only share a few of them here, but you can explore them yourself in The Daily Reflector Collection in ECU’s Digital Collections.
When you do, notice how things begin to change when you reach the photographs taken in the 1960s.
You’ll see a little less tobacco and a good deal more industry– textile plants, electronics firms and others. You’ll see photographs of the civil rights movement, and you’ll see images of black and white children going to school together for the first time. You’ll see women beginning to do jobs that were once reserved for men, and you’ll see signs of the U.S. bombing of Vietnam.
When I look at these photographs, I see those and plenty of other big themes in U.S. history that, if I was teaching a history class, I’m sure I would expound on until I put most of my students to sleep.
But to be honest, when I look at these photographs, the most powerful feelings I have are more sentimental.
Look at the faces in these photographs, I tell myself, and remember how fragile we all are and the great mysteries of life into which we are born. Think how much we’ve been left here to find our own way, how often we make terrible mistakes and how easy our hearts break. We are marvels really, every single one of us, and so brave and beautiful and precious.