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Marvin Jones: Making a day

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 2/8/2004. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Marvin Jones started working for the Export Leaf Tobacco Company in Wilson in 1946. At that time, Wilson was the largest bright-leaf tobacco market in the world. The buying, processing and selling of tobacco to cigarette companies was the city's lifeblood. The cry of the warehouse auctioneers, the aroma of the cured leaf, and the early morning procession of thousands of tobacco factory workers across the railroad tracks were all part of daily life.

Now 80 years old, nearly blind, but as full of vinegar and good humor as ever, Marvin Jones was a leaf factory worker for more than three decades. He was also a leader in Wilson's tobacco labor union movement. The first leaf workers union, Local 259-T, Tobacco Workers International Union, was founded at his tobacco factory just after the Second World War. Leaf workers in Greenville, Goldsboro, Kinston and other tobacco markets soon followed in 259-T's footsteps. They proved to be a stunning exception to the region's anti-union reputation.

At his home in Wilson, Jones recalled the strong, and sometimes irreverent, camaraderie that enlivened tobacco factory life and laid a foundation for that historic labor movement.

Marvin Jones. Photo by Chris Seward, 2004.In Marvin Jones's words:
"I had quite a few family members who worked in tobacco factories. My mother, she worked in there. My grandfather, he used to haul tobacco from the warehouse back to the factory. He used to stand on the back of the truck and hold tobacco on the truck. Folks used to come into town just to see him ride on the back of that truck. He wouldn't hold onto nothing, just standing back there, whether turning corners or backing up or whatever.

Wilson was known for tobacco more than any other town in eastern Carolina. They weren't doing too many other jobs. They had a cotton gin, but just one, and two fertilizer mills or something like that, but everybody else worked in the tobacco factory. We had seven tobacco factories here in Wilson.

I was about 14 when I started cropping tobacco. A car would come pick us up, take us out into the fields, bring us back. It was about a four- or five-month crop and that was it. In other words, if you lived in Wilson, they said you had to be one out of the two, rich or poor. They didn't have too many middle-class people in Wilson.

Getting the tobacco out of the field, that was the first thing. Then the farmers hang it up in the barn and cure it, then take it to the market and sell it. That's when you bring it to the factory. The women picked "foreign matter" out of the tobacco, like strings, paper, some of the stalks, all that sort of mess. Then they run it through what they call the buck feeder and it comes out this other end down there. Those machines dried the tobacco leaf. That's when they put it in the barrels, and they send those barrels to Durham and the other places where they make cigarettes.

I learned how to do everything around that factory. No blacks could be graders, not then, but I even learned how to grade that tobacco by color, how heavy it is, the body of the tobacco. You didn't have any black foremen back then either. One day the superintendent was standing up there and he called me. He's got this white fellow with him, and he said, "This is going to be you all's foreman. He doesn't know a thing about nothing out here, but he's going to be your foreman. And I'm going to hold you responsible." So I said OK. Now, I did three guys like that. That's just the way it was.

We worked six days a week. But see, one thing about Mr. Davis, the man that trained me, on Saturday we didn't do nothing. We might dig a hole out there in the ground, put a piece of wire over it, barbecue a chicken and play dice, drink liquor. We'd be shooting dice and Mr. Davis would call, "Roll them bones!"

All of us were just like that, every one of us. We were together. Say, for instance, this boy Snoop's brother died in D.C., OK? So he wants to go up there to his brother's funeral. No problem. Go. He left and he didn't come back to work 'cause he's going to the funeral. That Friday, Mr. Davis called me in, said "Marvin, when you see Snoop, give him his money." That's how we worked.

Girl named Lois Burch -- she was our sweeper. When she finished high school, she went to college. She'd be in college three or four weeks and every week she'd get her money. See, Mr. Davis carried her time. Boy named Thomas Barnes, he was playing football. He had to go to a practice in the afternoon. Three or four o'clock, Thomas gone.

Or me -- they know that I'm a fireman. When the whistle blows, they know I have to go because it might be their house. Ain't no question about that.

Celebrity Warehouse caught on fire one night. I stayed out all there all night. I hadn't had no sleep when I went to work, so he says, "Well, Marvin, hang around two or three hours and then go home and get some sleep." Like I said, we were just that close. We would let you go, and we would still keep the work going. See, the foreman knows. He's the one that let them go, and he's the one carrying the time. But not the superintendent -- he don't know anything that's going on. All of us pulled together and kept things going. We were just making the day. We carried on, laughed a lot. We just enjoyed each other. And you know me, I love people and I'm a fly in everybody's business but my own.

You had all types of fellows out there. Now this fellow I was talking about, Thomas Barnes, that's the one that played football. One time he was coming on this side of the track, we call it, on a Sunday afternoon, and these two white guys met him. They grabbed him and went to hitting him. He went to work on them and they took off. They run in this garage and he ran right in there right behind them and reached down and got him a drink crate, and he went to work on them. So they called the police, the police went down there and told Tommy to be in court Monday morning.

So 9 o'clock Monday, Tommy went on up there. About 9:30, 10 or 12 of us got in our cars and we went up to the courtroom. The judge said, "You mean to tell me, you beat both of these fellows here?!" Thomas said, "Yes sir, judge. If you don't believe me, I'll beat both of them right now!" He started pulling off his coat right there in the courtroom.

Judge said, "Hold it, Thomas, you can't do that!!" But you see, when the judge called him up there, Tommy looked up and saw all of us sitting out there. He saw us. He knew we were there for him. He knew we wouldn't leave him up there by himself. We were together."
Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: : 
Marvin Jones lived from November 18, 1923 - June 1, 2014.

Obituary: Marvin Jones. Stevens Family Funeral Home:

Origin - location: 
November 18, 1923 - June 1, 2014