I found this photograph in the Special Collections Department at the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte. It shows striking poultry slaughterhouse workers on a picket line in Rose Hill, a small town in Duplin County, N.C., where I spent some time when I was young.
The photograph was taken in Rose Hill in 1968. To me it gives us a glimpse at one of the important unsung chapters in the story of the black struggle for justice and equality in Eastern North Carolina.
I found the photograph in a collection of papers related to the life of Kelly M. Alexander, Sr., an important NAACP leader and civil rights activist in Charlotte.
The photograph includes the names of the workers. Beginning in the foreground, they are listed as Larreni Perry, R. Mae Pittman, G. Boone, James Centerton, and M. Watson.
All five were slaughterhouse workers at the Rose Hill Poultry Corp. (now House of Raeford Farms), one of the pioneering firms in the state’s modern poultry industry.
Through much of the 1960s, the company’s workers fought for better working conditions. They walked the picket line day in and day out for four years. There was a bitter union battle that began in 1962, at least one lawsuit, and a long and exhausting strike.
This photograph was taken during the strike in 1968. I do not think that it was a coincidence that the strike occurred in the middle of the civil rights movement or only a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To an important degree, the poultry workers were carrying Dr. King’s dream—for justice, equality and the dignity of all peoples—into the company’s slaughterhouse.
When I used to visit Rose Hill, I often heard people talk about Rose Hill Poultry and its iron-fisted owner, Nash Johnson. They spoke of the plant as if it was something out of a nightmare. A dark shadow seemed to fall over a room whenever anyone mentioned the place.
What I remember most is the workers’ hands: the lacerations, the scars, the infections, the way they looked gnarled and crimped up, as if they had been broken and never healed properly.
Sometimes I would see a man or woman in the street and know immediately where they worked by their hands. Many of the poultry workers I met in Rose Hill could barely hold a coffee cup.
I learned all those years go that that was the price for the chickens that we put on our dinner tables, and the striking workers on the picket line in Rose Hill wanted us to know it.
In the 1960s, few people in other places knew their plight. The workers at Rose Hill Poultry got little support outside of Duplin County, except for that of one or two civil rights groups and of Local 525 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, a labor union based in Asheville, N.C.
(The Amalgamated Meat Cutters, officially the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, merged with another union in 1979 and became the United Food and Commercial Workers.)
The state NAACP’s interest in the strike may explain how this photograph came to be in Kelly Alexander, Sr.’s papers at UNC-Charlotte. Alexander had been a local, state and national NAACP leader since the 1930s.
Kelly’s home in Charlotte, by the way, was bombed in 1965, the same year that the Ku Klux Klan held a rally and burned a cross in Rose Hill.
In the 1960s, no journalist told the Rose Hill poultry workers’ side of the story.
No investigation of working conditions in the state’s poultry industry appeared for another 20 years.
The first investigation of working conditions in the state’s poultry industry was a special issue of Southern Exposure in 1989. Led by MacArthur Award-winning journalist Bob Hall and Southern Exposure’s editor-in-chief Eric Bates, that report’s investigative team focused largely on Perdue’s slaughterhouses in northeastern N.C.
(I chaired the board of directors at the Institute for Southern Studies, the publisher of Southern Exposure, at that time.)
Looking at the people’s faces in this photograph now, I wonder if anybody will ever tell their story. And I wonder too how much things have changed inside the state’s poultry slaughterhouses, if at all. Today the poultry industry is the state’s largest agricultural sector and produces nearly a billion chickens and turkeys a year.
4 thoughts on “The Rose Hill Poultry Workers Strike of 1968”
Thank you for sharing this, David. It’s too bad the picketers’ hands are not visib
Thank you “so much” for sharing this “most meaningful story.” Now at the age of 69, it “instantly” brought back “ many memories “ of my youth, when my mother too, worked at the poultry plant in Rose Hill during this era. I too, know of the struggles and pains of many poultry workers- being the child of a mother who worked there for economic survival, as many others did. Several of my other relatives and my mother’s friends worked under these conditions (low pay, aching hands) as well.
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President Desantis would not want us to know about this. Good piece.
Thanks, David, for another eye-opener and heart-toucher. On my great-granduncle’s property in Raeford, Hoke County, now stands Butterball–about which I’d like to know more.