Nannie May Tilley oral history interview, March 27, 1974

Dr. Nannie Mae Tilley
March 27, 1974

Fred Ragan:

Dr. Nannie Mae Tilley, with all due respect to our other distinguished panelists, must stand as the world’s great authority on the history of tobacco. Our speaker was born in Durham County. She went to school in what I’m still calling the Women’s College up at Greensboro. She got her MA and PhD from Duke University. She taught for some time in the public schools and then became professor of history at West Carolina Teacher’s College, back then. In 1940 she took over the manuscript division of Duke Library at Duke University and she served there for a period of something over seven years. Then she accepted a position teaching again at East Texas State Teacher’s College, serving as professor there from 1947 until 1958. From 1950 to 1958 she was head of the department. She has for the last decade, or well over a decade now, been working on the history of the Reynolds Tobacco Company, a history of course that we all look forward to seeing. She is certainly a widely known and distinguished publicist. Perhaps the best known of her works, undoubtedly the best known of her works, is her History of the Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860 to 1929, which

of course has become a classic. She retired from East Texas and now is residing at Commerce, Texas. It is with a great deal of pleasure I present to you Nannie Mae Tilley. Dr. Tilley. [Applause]

Nannie Mae Tilley:

Glad to see all the people who are interested in tobacco. My subject is the impact of the tobacco industry and the Reynolds family on the growth of Winston-Salem. I wrote the paper before I knew what the subject was.

As most Tar Heels know, tobacco has been the major influence in the growth and development of Winston-Salem. Nearby Salisbury, a much older town than Winston, was on the North Carolina Railroad when it began operations in 1856, but Winston-Salem had no railroad connections until 1873 when the twenty-eight-mile Salem Branch Line, more properly known as the Northwestern North Carolina Railroad, was completed to connect with the North Carolina Railroad at Greensboro. It was chiefly this rickety little rail line that drew R.J. Reynolds to Winston in October, 1874. I got that date from a deed. That’s when he bought his first piece of land. Other small tobacco manufacturers began to come in about the same time. In the intervening 100 years Salisbury, without the impetus generated by the tobacco industry, has grown into a town of approximately 25,000 while Winston-Salem is now a city of some 140,000. Moreover, there is little industry in Winston-Salem that was not based on capital derived from the tobacco industry. Winston-Salem has extensive transportation facilities and abundant capital. The Wachovia Bank, with tentacles in all areas of the state, grew and developed along with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Reynolds’s early account books abound with records of loans and deposits connected with the Wachovia Bank. Reynolds of course was not the only important tobacco business in Winston in the very early years of the

town, just as the Wachovia Bank is not the only bank of importance in Winston-Salem today.

As the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company grew and prospered over the years, its impact on Winston-Salem has been tremendous. To list the areas affected is virtually impossible as they range from transportation facilities and labor problems to matters of education and various types of community improvements. A few details about the Winston of early years renders even more remarkable the impact of the tobacco industry on the town. In 1875 Winston, the county seat of Forsyth County, was entirely overshadowed by Salem, and the two in 1877 were described as “two quite small neighboring towns with the people poor and depressed from the trials of war and reconstruction.” But in the following year Winston contained fifteen independent tobacco factories, some of them of minor size, of course, yet at that same time and into the 1880s the most important business of the two towns lay in the picking and drying of wild blackberries. [Laughter] In 1877 the New York Sun carried this account:

The little town of Salem, N.C., containing only about 2,000 inhabitants, has shipped during three years over 3,000,000 pounds of dried blackberries for which nearly half a million dollars was received.

For many years R.J. Reynolds experienced great difficulty with the absenteeism during the blackberry season. One editor in 1907 recalled with nostalgia the years when the dried blackberry “was a power in the channels of trade and business.” These blackberry pickers were chiefly whites because virtually no slaves had been held in the area of Winston or Salem, and I might say I never ran across but one person who had ever eaten any of the dried blackberries. They had to be soaked in water and then cooked a little. Miss [06:44] Taylor at Danbury, North Carolina, who was nearly a hundred when

she talked with me and who knew just about everything, said she had eaten them, and I said, “Well how did they taste?” She said, “Well only a very little better than nothing.” [Laughter]

As the tobacco business grew more and more, Negroes were moved into the area to become the nucleus of the large black population in Winston-Salem today. When the white labor proved inadequate, Reynolds at first drew a few blacks, especially from Patrick and Henry Counties in Virginia, but his business grew almost beyond his control and he became the pioneer in seeking black labor from other areas, chiefly from the cotton fields of South Carolina. This great influx of black labor came from tenant farms of upper South Carolina, especially after 1899. There was no tobacco business in Winston-Salem after 1899 except the Reynolds business. Such a move was necessary because white labor was so scarce and undependable that foremen often scoured the town and countryside in search of labor.

Charles Hunt, a reliable and judicious black, was sent to South Carolina for additional laborers. There, apparently in the area south and southeast of Charlotte, North Carolina, Hunt rounded up farm tenant families to whom five dollars per week seemed like salvation. On his first trip he is said to have gathered together a trainload of people who then came to Winston in box cars. They were lined up on Fifth Street to be examined by foremen who hired them in groups without reference to pay or the nature of the work to be done. Many of these South Carolinians proved to be excellent laborers and happy in their newfound prosperity sent home for their relatives and neighbors to join them. South Carolina officers came to some workers who had contracted to make a crop before coming to Winston-Salem. These South Carolina blacks for many years could be

distinguished from others by their references to barrels of tobacco and to Reynolds tobacco mill, nomenclature brought to the area by the term cotton mill as the only indication of industrial work.

For many years these workers were generally hired at the standard rate of five dollars per week, though they often received less because they were employed with the understanding that they were to be paid only when work was available. Often a man made little more than three dollars per week. Of course husband, wife, and often children worked for Reynolds. Since they could have gardens and livestock in the rural confines of the Winston-Salem of that day they were able to subsist. No doubt these blacks who left tenant farming in upper South Carolina fared as well if not better in the factories of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company than in the cotton fields of upper South Carolina. With the lapse of years, many of these totally unskilled laborers who generally removed the mid rib of tobacco leaves--stemmers, they were called--became handlers of machinery. The great amount of hand work necessary until the 1940s gave rise to the statement frequently heard in Winston-Salem, namely that if Reynolds’s present volume of production required laborers on the same scale as in the early years, the town would be as large as Chicago.

No doubt the great prosperity of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and the large number of hard-pressed South Carolina blacks are responsible for the general belief that Winston-Salem consists of Negroes and millionaires. That may be a little out of style now; I don’t know. It was largely through these blacks that the great attempt at the organization of labor produced a riotous spirit, roughly from 1943 until 1953. Organized labor in its strongest and often near violent form was thus introduced to Winston-Salem

by the tobacco industry and its leaders at first reacted in the usual manner of southern employers. Other factors than wages entered into this labor turbulence, though essentially it was a part of the grim struggle of American labor to maintain its war-time level of wages. Intertwined with the question of wages was a neglect of civic matters during ten years of depression followed by five years of war. There was also poverty and ignorance among the workers at the Reynolds factory, especially among the blacks. Only one high school existed in the city. Incidentally, it was the R.J. Reynolds High School, which was conveniently located for the well-to-do. Nevertheless, there had been little before the decade from 1943 to ’53 in the way of disputes involving labor.

From 1916 through 1919 wages had increased at a regular annual rate from the standard five dollars per week, but in 1921 there came a drop of twenty percent, which was a reduction from wartime wages. A rather vigorous effort followed to organize the black workers and white workers separately. Considerable smoke arose from this move, but no essential progress was made in the organization of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco workers until the 1940s. Early in 1942 and later, three different unions began efforts to organize the Reynolds employees, including what came to be known as the communist- dominated Local 22 of the CIO. I didn’t believe it was communist dominated at first, but it was. There was a right-wing division of the CIO and the dignified Tobacco Workers International Union. The activities gave rise to a company union known as the R.J. Reynolds Employees Association, Inc., which was chartered on October 20, 1943. It was never called a company union, but it was. There eventually rose a new ally for the company union known as the Citizens Emergency Committee.

For some time no success met these efforts to organize the workers, though very early in 1942 the Rev. Owen Whitfield, a black minister, arrived in town to prepare the groundwork for the entry of Local 22. Whitfield appears to have made the acquaintance of several Negro ministers, including the Rev. Robert M. Pitts, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, who was known as the greatest pulpit orator among the ministers of Winston-Salem. Whitfield, said to be on the union payroll and abundantly supplied with funds, had come to study the Reynolds plant. Evidently shrewd and capable, he laid the basis for an organization drive influencing Pitts and other black ministers and leaders to organize their congregations, which contained many Reynolds employees. Later regular organizers came to town and many white workers became interested in the drive.

No notable success accompanied the work of either group until Thursday, June 17, 1943, when suddenly and dramatically the movement caught fire. At lunchtime on that day James Pickens McCarter, a Negro job hand who had served as draft boy or truck pusher since June 26, 1927, suddenly fell dead. Some of McCarter’s fellow workers in Number 65 claimed that his death had resulted from poor working conditions and an unbearable increase in his work load. Meanwhile, Donald Henderson, president of the division of the CIO which included Local 22, announced to the communist Daily Worker that Reynolds employees were flocking into the union since the stoppage of work on June 17, “stoppage for which even the company admits the union was in no way responsible.”

Whatever the exact cause of McCarter’s death may have been, Local 22 until that time had made no progress against the Tobacco Workers International Union. In the afternoon of the day of McCarter’s death, a sit-down strike began in Number 65, rapidly spreading to other buildings and departments. Sympathetic walkouts on a small scale

occurred in the plants of other companies in town. The walkout at Reynolds included especially workers in the leaf processing areas where unskilled hand labor prevailed. This move to organize workers in this area greatly expedited mechanical inventions, which soon rendered hand stemming of leaf obsolete, thereby reducing the number of unskilled laborers needed. The newly started strip preparation department had been contemplated for a number of years, but was delayed by scarcity of materials during the war. The drastic effect of this change is reflected in the company’s reduction of hand stemmers from 3,533 in July 1944, to 1,416 in February 1948. This, then, was the scene which made for ten years of labor strikes theretofore unknown in Winston-Salem. Significantly, the body of James Pickens McCarter was carried back to South Carolina for burial.

Throughout the succeeding decade there was almost constant turmoil, though it was especially strong for long periods, especially when new contracts were being negotiated. There was marching, singing, and speaking by the workers, conflict with police, work stoppages, constant elections, an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, which established a full fledged office in town. The company appeared to be adamant and Local 22 increasingly contentious. At one time a large delegation of representatives from Local 22 invaded the office of John C. Whitaker, then vice president of the company.

Finally on April 30, 1948, after Local 22 had been shown beyond a doubt to be dominated by communist leadership, and a few hours before expiration of the fourth contract, the members of Local 22, carrying placards and chanting, “We want a contract,” marched outside the R.J. Reynolds office building. Crowds on Fourth Street sang,

“Solidarity Forever.” Later two Negro officials of Local 22, Robert Black and Velma Hopkins, set up an amplifying system behind the Reynolds office building while members of Local 22 jammed the sidewalks. Velma Hopkins, with a newfound ability to sway a crowd, took over, declaring to the assembled workers in the words of Karl Marx: “You don’t have a thing to lose but your chains.” She said further:

Who built these great factories here? We did. Our mothers and fathers did, working here for ten or fifteen cents an hour. That’s the reason we’re uneducated and living in slums. R. J. Reynolds workers are living there. We are only asking to be treated fair, that those working in seasonal plants be able to draw their unemployment compensation.

Organizing activities were stepped up and an election ordered by the National Labor Relations Board for March 8, 1950, was held between the four groups of workers. The outcome was inconclusive, but many were surprised at the strength of Local 22. It was said to be the largest labor election ever held in the state but not in the South.

Prior to the runoff election on March 23, 1950, the Rev. Kenneth R. Williams, an alderman who owed his election to Local 22, disavowed Local 22 by expressing hope that the people of Winston-Salem would “come to their senses and send the communists away for good.” Williams, the first black alderman of Winston-Salem, later became president of Winston-Salem Teacher’s College, thus showing that his career was not harmed by his stand.

The runoff election was again inconclusive, with the ballots included in 133 challenged votes. In the end, Local 22 lost by only 66 votes. Shortly thereafter, the company announced another increase in wages and soon began a program of self examination which resulted in a strengthened personnel department, a softening of the attitude of foremen, or supervisors as they came to be called, and by 1952 a plan for

desegregated workers. These moves, one suspects, came from the influence of Charles B. Wade, who has more of the outlook of R. J. Reynolds than any director met by this speaker. By 1962 there were five black inspectors in the new Whitaker Park complex. As one employee in Number 65 analyzed the years of turbulence, “It was Local 22 that made Christians out of the Reynolds bosses.” Apparently the company change represented a genuine shift in policy made possible by the rare common sense of John C. Whitaker, who suddenly forgot his anger and began to advocate the very reforms which Local 22 had demanded.

No South Carolina blacks could easily have reached Winston-Salem during the early years of the twentieth century without rail transportation. Neither could tobacco products be handled adequately without such transportation. It is doubtful that securing such facilities was more dramatically accomplished anywhere in the state than in Winston-Salem. The tobacco industry had no hand in building the Salem Branch Line, the town’s first rail connection. This new rail line, on the other hand, enticed the tobacco industry to Winston-Salem. The line to Greensboro was graded and made ready for laying the track under Salem initiative led by Edward F. Belo [21:47], but unfortunately his company fell into bankruptcy before the tracks could be laid. The line was then bought by the Richmond and Danville rail system, which sought to dominate North Carolina shipping. It was finished, but Winston-Salem manufacturers despised its excessive rates and rough handling of their products. Moreover, connection with the Richmond and Danville system gave them no opportunity to reach the Midwest.

Winston tobacconers then began an intensive drive to secure connections with the Norfolk and Western Railway by way of Martinsville to Roanoke, Virginia, after the

Richmond and Danville had successfully blocked all their efforts to secure connections with the Baltimore and Ohio. (There were a lot of shenanigans in that effort. It tempted me greatly but I knew I had to move on.) R. J. Reynolds took the lead in this move, which began about 1885, though other tobacco manufacturers of Winston were included in the pledge of $150,000 to build that portion of the road falling in Forsyth County. After delays of one kind and another, including the dissolution of partnership in one of the chief contractors, R. J. Reynolds attended a meeting in Danville in March 1888, after which it was announced that a new company had been formed for building the road from Winston to Roanoke. Additional funds were needed and a drive was started to persuade people along the projected route to vote funds for that purpose.

At a rally in Walnut Cove, which lay in Sauratown Township in Stokes County, on June 9, 1888, Reynolds, despite his propensity for stammering, made a speech favoring bonds for the rail lines which was summarized in a local paper as follows:

One of the most level-headed reasons urged in favor of voting the subscription for bonds, and one we feel should be put on record because of its general application to our southern section of the Roanoke and Southern, was made by R. J. Reynolds, Esq. By the way, a most level- headed man, too, is he. It was thus: “Twenty years ago, soon after the war, Northern capitalists invested largely in Western railroads. At the same time they advertised by flaming posters, write ups, and every effective way possible throughout the South and North, attracting all immigrants and thousands of people from every section so that for fifteen years the whole tide of immigration flowed westward. The result was the upbuilding of immense cities with overflowing populations and the phenomenal growth of the whole section and an increase in railroad lines that not only brought immense worth to their owners but placed their bonds at a premium. Today the situation is changed. Northern capitalists are turning their attention southward and are seeing investments here.” If this same ratio in this direction is kept up for thirty years as marked the last two, Mr. Reynolds argued that the bonds voted by the people of Sauratown Township would be worth dollar for dollar and the investment regarded as a paying one.

That’s the end of the quotation from the Union Republican.

Thus with bonds voted by the people, convict labor from North Carolina and Virginia, and by hook and crook the road was built. Just prior to its completion the Richmond and Danville forces working by moonlight laid a side track which threatened to eliminate a portion of the oncoming Roanoke and Southern. This was a trick frequently used by the Richmond and Danville system. By swift action, however, the Forsyth County commissioners settled the dispute and Reynolds, the Haneses, and others built new and larger tobacco factories.

In detail the story of the construction of the rail line from Roanoke to Winston is extremely interesting as a success story, but in no way is it as interesting as Reynolds’s unsuccessful attempt to block J. Pierpont Morgan when he attained control of the hated Richmond and Danville system after the Panic of 1893. Morgan interests began efforts to organize a Southern railway with the Richmond and Danville system as the nucleus. To do so they needed the state-owned North Carolina Railroad, which curved across the state from Goldsboro by way of Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Salisbury, and Charlotte. This road had in a devious way been leased to the Richmond and Danville system. With a Republican governor in office and the populist movement in full swing, time came to consider renewing the lease, this time to the Southern Railway, for ninety-nine years. This was done. Reynolds, of course, wanted to force the main line of the Southern to come through Winston over the old Salem Branch Line and a road leading southward then under construction. Reynolds, backed and praised on the front pages of the Raleigh News & Observer by Josephus Daniels, fought for annulment of the lease of the North Carolina Railroad to the Southern Railway.

This struggle overshadowed any other news in the state and is replete with sharp and amusing moves which we must omit here. The Seaboard Air Line Railway entered the struggle, offering to pay more for a lease of the North Carolina Railroad than the Southern had agreed to, and in several moves Reynolds then offered to buy control of the North Carolina Railroad or to lease it at a higher figure than the Southern had offered. Josephus Daniels praised Reynolds as a friend of the people who had not hesitated to put up a financial fight against the wealthiest financier of the nation, referred to by the editor as “Rothschild Pierpont and Co.” Reynolds lost the fight, but for quite some time it appeared that he might win. Reynolds carried on this struggle well before he was forced into the American Tobacco Company.

Reynolds sent Josephus Daniels a check for $100 to use in traveling around the state, because the Richmond and Danville system had cancelled his free ride that most press people got. When I found the copy of the check pictured in the News & Observer I had a picture of it made and sent to Jonathan Daniels and told him to come on over and get his money. The check had never been cashed, and so on. He wrote back that he’d be there with a truck. [Laughter]

Winston did not get on the main line of the Southern Railway, but this speaker has heard strange hints that some of Reynolds’s methods may have been utilized in forcing Interstate 40 through Winston-Salem. This cannot be substantiated, but Winston-Salem is on Interstate Highway 40 and Reynolds’s great fleet of trucks carries immense loads of raw leaf into town and takes out immense loads of manufactured tobacco products. Had there been no impact of the tobacco industry on Winston-Salem it is doubtful that Interstate Highway 40 would have its present route. I do not wish to claim everything in

the way of improvements in transportation for R. J. Reynolds, but it is significant that he served as supervisor of roads in Winston Township at least from 1886 until 1890.

The direct effect of the tobacco industry on the social, cultural, and charitable institutions of Winston-Salem has been far reaching and perhaps not dreamed of when R. J. Reynolds made his reputation statewide for fighting the Morgan interests. Reynolds himself is not the main character in influencing social betterment and cultural improvements in Winston-Salem, but as usual he set the pace in a surprising way and at an early period. Perhaps one of his most surprising moves lay in his 1916 plans to make better housing available to his employees, both white and black. This move was uncanny in its resemblance to federal housing plans of the present era, a move that had it been adopted generally then might have prevented some of our current problems.

Apparently his first aim was to furnish relief for his black employees. In furtherance of his plans, the company proceeded with Reynolds’s purchase of eighty-four acres of land stretching from near his factories into East Winston. To this acreage Reynolds had added a number of additional lots. He planned to grade this area and build homes to be leased or sold to his employees, both black and white. He died before these plans could be fulfilled, but his successors carried them out in a halfhearted manner, doing nothing in the end to expand this badly needed program. Some 100 houses were built on this land, which the company drained and provided with sidewalks, sewage connections, and electric facilities. These houses were at first leased to employees at six percent on condition that they be properly maintained. Later they were sold at the same rate with the proviso that the rent already paid should become a down payment and that the property continue to be maintained. This area included [31:49] Avenue, occupied by

the blacks, and Cameron Avenue, where white employees lived. The houses varied in price from $3,000 to 4,000, with fifteen years allowed for payment. They remain in use today and are still well kept, reflecting a certain steadiness of character. This generous move has not been forgotten in Winston-Salem and many children of those who purchased these houses occupy them today.

Again Reynolds set the pace for interest in education and social betterment in 1891, when he needed all the funds he could muster for his new brick factory. When Simon Green Atkins appeared before the local board of trade on January 30, 1891, to request assistance for establishing a Negro college in Winston-Salem chiefly by means of state aid, the matter was discussed and a committee appointed, such action usually being tantamount to refusal. Previously Negro citizens had managed to raise $2,000 of $2,500 necessary to get action from the state legislature. When, as might have been expected, no report came from the committee and the board of trade, R.J. Reynolds personally contributed the needed $500, thus making possible the Slater Industrial and State Normal School, which over the years has grown into Winston-Salem State University, an institution which has been of great importance in uplifting the life of the Negro in North Carolina. Again, as with his efforts to provide better housing, he sought to help those who could do little to help themselves. Another such move came in 1899 when he gave $5,000 for establishing a hospital and nurses training department in connection with the Slater Industrial and State Normal School.

Other white citizens of Winston-Salem thought to help educate the blacks, one being William A. Blair, who wrote an official of the Southern Education Board about this

matter in terms which clearly establish Reynolds as a genuine humanitarian interested in the uplift of mankind. Blair wrote as follows on November 25, 1899:

In connection with our work for the proper training of the colored people here I’m sure you will be glad to hear that one of our citizens, Mr. R. J. Reynolds, who has not appeared to take much interest in the work which we have been attempting to do, has been observing it in a quiet and careful way without our knowledge, and now he comes to us and offers a cash donation of $5,000 provided we will raise a like amount to establish a hospital for colored people and a training school for colored nurses in connection with our school.

Many such gifts far too numerous to mention were made by Reynolds. In fact, his personal contributions continued until he was on his death bed when he made a [34:51] will and was described by his witnesses as “in bed, propped up with a pillow, ill, feeble in body, but mind sound and clear.” Then he requested that his estate pay for additions to both Negro and white sections of the Twin City Hospital, a sum amounting to almost a quarter of a million dollars.

I could continue with a long list of gifts which Reynolds made in an effort to improve the quality of life in Winston-Salem and in other places in the state. Suffice it to say he made no gift for show or for lessening his tax load. It should be noted that during Reynolds’s lifetime money did not pour into Winston-Salem from the sales of Prince Albert and Camels in such volume as it did in later years.

Reynolds’s work was continued by his wife, Katherine Smith Reynolds, in the following such items as a well-endowed chair of biology at Davidson College. She also gave $50,000 for the purchase of a site on which to build a high school and erected the handsome R. J. Reynolds Auditorium, both as personal memorials to him. Perhaps in the long run the R. J. Reynolds High School proved as valuable as any of the contributions inspired by Reynolds. Those who have administered it have been true to the motives

which led to its establishment, so true that some forty years after its doors were first opened the students won more National Merit scholarships than did students from any other single high school in the United States. R. J. Reynolds High School has long been regarded as perhaps the best in North Carolina.

William Neal Reynolds, the brother and beneficiary of the business acumen of R. J. Reynolds, also gave generously to many institutions which benefited Winston-Salem and its inhabitants, though he also aided many projects that benefited the state as a whole. He and his wife gave funds for erecting the Louisa Wilson Bitting Dormitory at Salem College. They also gave $20,000 toward a fund for a new hospital for whites and additional funds for a hospital for Negroes, the latter named the Kate Bitting Memorial Hospital but familiarly known among its patrons as the “Katie B.” Kate Bitting Reynolds left an estate of $8,000,000, $5,000,000 of which she placed in a perpetual trust fund with the income to go to the poor and needy of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. Extensive gifts to North Carolina State University by William Neal Reynolds furnished a considerable indirect impact on Winston-Salem because of the great number of its graduates employed by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Time permits only a brief summary of the monumental efforts of the four children of Richard Joshua Reynolds to follow his example in providing funds for civic and educational advancement in Winston-Salem. They, too, donated much to statewide projects which affected Winston-Salem. In 1948 Richard Joshua Reynolds, Jr. made a notable gift of $100,000 for purchasing the site for building the public library of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. In addition, this gift to the library was followed by another of $250,000 from other members of the Reynolds family. This speaker because

of countless hours spent in this library can attest to its great importance in the cultural life of Winston-Salem.

Mary Reynolds Babcock, the elder daughter of R. J. Reynolds, and her husband Charles H. Babcock, donated 300 acres of valuable land within the city limits of Winston-Salem as a site for the campus of Wake Forest College as well as numerous other items needed by the college. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation under the leadership of the Reynolds family contributed heavily to other causes affecting the city and the state, including $100,000 to be used with other available funds for a statewide campaign against venereal diseases, other funds for building an airport, giving further support to Wake Forest College and other ventures too numerous to list. It should be noted that Mary Reynolds Babcock in her relatively short life gave a total of $7,000,000 to civic, educational, artistic, and charitable projects which directly affected the Winston-Salem community.

The Gray family, which succeeded R. J. Reynolds in the lucrative leadership of the company, came belatedly to follow the example of the Reynolds family in the way of donations for the improvement of life in Winston-Salem. A gift in 1928 by Bowman Gray, Sr. and his wife consisted of 242 feet of valuable real estate for the new Centenary Methodist Church on Fifth Street. Nine years later the same family contributed $100,000 to match funds of the WPA for use in building the Gray Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the city of Winston-Salem. In 1939 came a notable gift of $750,000 from the Bowman Gray Foundation as a nucleus of building the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, in reality a branch of Wake Forest College. The Gray family poured more funds and property into this medical school, which with federal funds and eventual aid

from the Ford Foundation reached a secure position. In addition, the James A. Gray Endowment Fund provided $1,700,000 [40:38] to the Methodist College of North Carolina, though substantial funds went to other colleges, including Winston-Salem State College, now Winston-Salem State University.

Perhaps the most notable contribution to the cultural improvement of the city lay in the removal of Wake Forest itself from eastern North Carolina to Winston-Salem. This was a cooperative effort which involved R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, many individuals and institutions, all based on tobacco money. Mary Reynolds Babcock gave generously to this move as did the Gray family. A recurring annual gift of income from $10,000,000 of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation was made available to the North Carolina Baptist Convention on condition that Wake Forest be moved to Winston-Salem. In 1959 the same foundation, in addition to its annual gift, provided $750,000 for the college for the construction of a dormitory. Moving this liberal arts college to Winston-Salem involved many people, though the great burden was properly borne by the Reynoldses and Grays.

Aid for the upbuilding of the city’s cultural institutions also came directly from the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, though at first somewhat reluctantly. Only the force of R. J. Reynolds caused a corporate donation of $10,000 to the local YWCA in 1917 on the grounds that some employees of the company were frequently able to secure living quarters in the YWCA and that these accommodations generally help “to uplift and strengthen the character of such employees.” These are the words of R. J. Reynolds himself. On the whole, however, corporate donations amounted to very little until the 1940s, though there had been many earlier donations from many individuals who had

profited from the operations of the company, so many in fact that they can only be hinted at here.

By 1940 the directors seemed inclined to aid substantially in community development despite something of a fear of their stockholders. Plans for building the Winston-Salem and Forsyth County Hospital, which came to a head in 1945, furnishes a somewhat canny arrangement. A thorough discussion of the matter came on December 13, 1940. Finally Robert E. Lassiter moved that if a contribution were made that it be set at $600,000. This move was adopted because of two factors. The company then paid forty percent of the property taxes levied by Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and the city had just authorized a bond election of $1,500,000 for the hospital. Furthermore, a considerable sum had been raised by subscription and since forty percent of the bond issue is exactly $600,000, the company naturally preferred that method rather than a bond issue. The directors of course voted for the donation. Other small corporate donations followed. The company agreed to give $150,000 for the War Memorial Coliseum, provided that $600,000 could be raised from other sources. At a dinner meeting to announce this gift, S. Clay Williams, then chairman of the executive committee, declared: “I am reluctant to stand and acknowledge applause because this is a gift of more than 62,000 stockholders in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.”

After 1949 the company, influenced perhaps by labor disorders, became bold in making donations for community development and several fairly large contributions were made before 1953. I might add that there was a settlement of a suit involving the gift of a corporation to Princeton University which gave them the right to make the donations, which helped to continue that work. From 1953 to 1959, as prime movers for bringing

Wake Forest College to Winston-Salem and building up the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, the company contributed more than $1,500,000. Other donations became so frequent and so large that a special committee was established for handling corporate gifts.

Any attempt to measure the impact of the tobacco industry on Winston-Salem must be largely subjective. There are many more opportunities in the city now than those involving the picking and drying of blackberries and many more than those involving employment by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Winston-Salem has lost much of its provincialism, if for no other reason than by the frequent visitors from France, Sweden, England or Germany who came to sell or install elaborate machinery for the manufacture of tobacco. Education is readily available even into medicine and law. It may be significant also that the citizens in Winston-Salem in some manner secured the location of the North Carolina School of the Arts. I always considered the great number of Sunday New York Times sold in the city to be of some import: a truckload at the Robert E. Lee Hotel--I don’t know what took the place of the Robert E. Lee because it’s been destroyed--another truckload at a drugstore where I got my copy, and a third truckload at Wake Forest College, which is now Wake Forest University. As an aspiring tobacconist seeking to build up a business in Greensboro said in the 1890s, “Of course we should be able to do what those horny-handed sons of toil have done in Winston.” [Applause]

Fred Ragan:

I’m sure that Dr. Tilley would be delighted to entertain any questions the audience may have. [Pause] Are there any questions?

Questioner One:

When did those [46:55] begin, Dr. Tilley? I missed that.

Nannie Mae Tilley:

Well if you want to consider--if you want to compare them to the Dukes, that’s--. [Laughter] The earliest record that I have of anything that R. J. Reynolds gave was 1891. There were little things along the way [47:14].


Transcriber: Deborah Mitchum

Date: October 11, 2010

Nannie May Tilley oral history interview, March 27, 1974
Transcript of a lecture on the impact of the tobacco industry and the Reynolds family on the growth of Winston-Salem given by Dr. Nannie May Tilley at the second annual Tobacco History Symposium held at East Carolina University, March 27, 1974. Introduction to Dr. Tilley given by Fred Ragan.
March 27, 1974
Original Format
oral histories
Local Identifier
Location of Original
East Carolina Manuscript Collection
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