Sunday, November 5, 2017

'We Shall Overcome Someday'

I finished a good book last night, a novel based on the history of a real cigar factory and the women who worked there.  It's The Cigar Factory: A Novel of Charleston by Michelle Moore.  
Here's a brief description of the book:

"The Cigar Factory tells the story of two entwined families in the storied port city of Charleston, South Carolina, during the World Wars. Moore’s novel follows the parallel lives of family matriarchs working on segregated floors of the massive Charleston cigar factory, where white and black workers remain divided and misinformed about the duties and treatment received by each other."
This is what the cigar factory looks like today.  It has been recently renovated into condos and shops, a restaurant and a wedding venue.

It was built in 1882 as a cotton mill and became a cigar factory in 1903, operated by The American Tobacco Company.

The factory employed 1400 people  who produced 5-cent Certified Cremos and 10-cent Roi-Tans, America's biggest selling cigars. 

Sixty percent of the workers were women who first hand-rolled each cigar and later made them on a mechanized assembly line that moved ever faster as the owners bullied the workers and sought to make more and more profits.

Ammonia produced in processing along with the dust and odor of the chemicals in the tobacco made the workers smell awful and they were often shunned in shops and trolleys as the odor never left them.  They also suffered and died young from the tobacco dust and ammonia they breathed.

Workers were segregated on different floors by race, and by the jobs they did.  Black men did heavy labor and white men worked as higher paid managers, foremen, and machine oilers.  Black women worked in the basement as tobacco leaf stemmers, white women upstairs as rollers, finishers, packagers, and inspectors. 

They entered the building by seperate doors, had seperate restrooms and eating areas.  

"Cassie McGonegal and her niece Brigid work upstairs in the factory, rolling cigars by hand. Meliah Amey Ravenel works in the basement, where she stems the tobacco. While both white and black workers suffer in the harsh working conditions of the factory and both endure the sexual harassment of the foremen, segregation keeps them from recognizing their common plight until the Tobacco Workers Strike of 1945. Through the experience of a brutal picket line, two women come to realize how much they stand to gain by joining forces, creating a powerful moment in labor history that gives rise to the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."


One of the families lives in a tenement in Bodans Alley which still exists and has been renovated into small homes that cost millions.

Adgers Wharf, where the Mosquito Fleet went out from the early 1800s until 1989 plays a big part in the book.  Black fishermen whose wives and daughters worked at the cigar factory went out daily in small wooden sailboats to supply the nearby Charleston Market and their families with fish, oysters, etc.  You can just see the water where the docks were on the end of this street where the women walked on their way to and from work.

I think this book would make an awesome movie.  I hope someone does it!

Now I'm off to search for an interview with the author, who interviewed some of her own relatives who worked at The Cigar Factory for the book. 


  1. This book sounds very interesting to me. My great-grandfather's brother owned a one-story cigar factory and lost it in a huge fire that started a block and a half away in 1899. I will definitely be looking for the book you mentioned. Thanks for sharing!

  2. How interesting, I always associate cigars and Florida, not South Carolina. There were still water fountains marked White and Colored when we first lived in Georgia in the 60's. They had segregated chain gangs that worked on the roads , claiming them up. Sometime I'll write about the time I ate in a black restaurant in New Orleans, never occurred to me the restaurant might be segregated.

  3. A fascinating book. A subject I know little about. We often read about slavery but not segregation.

  4. That book sounds very interesting ..

  5. It's good to know people have changed the times.
    Interesting post about Cigars.

  6. Sounds like a great book. I'll have to look for it.

  7. That sounds a great book,just the kind I enjoy reading. Our history is embarrassing sometimes and yet still awful stuff is happening today. Will humans ever learn.

  8. I have never understood the segregation, it is such a sick thinking that one is better than another. Things changes very slowly that way and it is a worldwide problem I am afraid.

  9. Hard to believe it was once like that, but I do remember a lot of it.

  10. Sounds like a good one to look for. Thanks for the recommendation.

  11. Sounds like a good book. Look at that street with the is beautiful:)

  12. Dear Cynthia, thanks for sharing your enjoyment of this book. I'll look for it in our library as I so enjoy historical fiction. Isn't life wonderful--that we can meet people and places from a far-off time and they become so real to us that we know them as we know neighbors. Peace today to you as ever.

  13. Thank goodness there have been some changes for the better - for the most part. That must have been tough to live in those times. We don't know how lucky we are.

  14. What a very very interesting story! It reinforces my own view that the decline of labor unions in this country contributed to the gross disproportionate financial divide between the middle lower echelons and the very wealthy. Union particularly in the north did not help colored minorities as much as they should have though but that's another story....

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