Sunday, June 17, 2001

June 17 fell on a Thursday back in 1943, another sweltering day in the tobacco factories that lined Depot Street in downtown Winston-Salem.

The wartime demand for cigarettes forced a relentless pace that year.
Theodosia Simpson was at her stemming machine as usual, pulling the tobacco leaves away from the stems. And as usual, the foreman was there too, ruling over the roomful of women. That day he threatened to fire a widow who was sick and couldn’t keep up.

He had that authority, but he didn’t reckon on Simpson’s gumption – on the power of one woman’s indignation.

“She started crying, almost went into hysteria because she had these children to rear and nobody working but her,” Simpson told a historian years later. “And that sort of got next to me.”

At lunchtime, Simpson and a handful of other women decided to act. They returned to their machines and when the foreman blew the whistle to get back to work, the women refused, and every machine on the floor remained silent.

“So they pulled the whistle for us to go to work,” she said. “All that I had talked to just sat down on the little stools that was out from the machine and turned their backs to the machines. … The foreman looked at us as if we were crazy. He pulled the whistle again and nobody moved.”

A chain reaction

Simpson’s act set off a strike that shut down the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. By the next morning two more stemmeries were idle. By Friday afternoon three factories had closed. By Monday, 7,000 black workers and 3,000 nonstriking white workers had gone home. And by Tuesday, company executives agreed to meet with workers to discuss their grievances.

The strike led to a brief period of unionization at Reynolds. But its reach was broader than the tobacco factories. Union members registered black voters for the first time in the city’s history. These voters went on to elect Kenneth Williams in 1947 as the first black alderman in the South since the turn of the century.

But Theodosia Simpson is virtually ignored in history books. You won’t find her portrait anywhere, or a park named in her honor – nothing to remind us of the courage it took to risk all for what she believed to be right.

William Rice, a retired professor from Winston-Salem State University, was 13 when the women from the stemmeries made their stand.

“What she did was a very bold move,” Rice said. “Here was a person who was willing to put everything on the line to stand up for basic principles.”

Leaders from the past

The union didn’t last long at Reynolds. With the help of this newspaper and the anti-communist hysteria of the era, Reynolds broke the union, and the organizers lived out their lives in obscurity.

After her time at Reynolds, Simpson became an X-ray technician, first at the Kate B. Reynolds Memorial Hospital and then at Forsyth Memorial Hospital. She was 69 when she died in 1988.

It has been 58 years since Simpson showed us the power of civil disobedience. A labor strike is probably not the answer to the economic turmoil we face here today, or to our civic apathy. But as we search for leaders for our own time, we might do well to look back to the leadership born June 17 in a roomful of women who risked their livelihoods for something greater than themselves.

Theodosia Simpson’s story makes me think in lofty terms. But her courage may be simpler to explain. This week I met Lonnie Nesmith, who went out on strike with Simpson and later worked as a union organizer. He used words I don’t hear much anymore but wish I did: “She had nerve and grace.”