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Tobacco, History and Memory

A tobacco field in eastern North Carolina

In the summer of 1998, tobacco growers in eastern North Carolina waited anxiously as state attorneys general negotiated a settlement with tobacco companies over smoking-related healthcare expenses. Seemingly on the verge of a sea change, farmers worried about the viability of their crop and wondered if housing developments would soon sprout from their fields instead of tobacco. Meanwhile, contract workers from Mexico, separated from family and homeplace, were now doing much of the hard labor involved in tobacco cultivation. Exploring an agricultural community in the midst of such a dramatic period of transition became the focus for interviews and outreach coordinated by Lu Ann Jones and Charlie Thompson as part of the Southern Oral History Program’s “Listening for a Change” initiative.

The community where Jones and Thompson listened for a change is at a crossroads both literally and figuratively. On the border of Johnston and Harnett counties, Bailey’s Crossroads seems to be in the middle of nowhere – tobacco and sweet potato fields, a couple of modest churches, a handful of houses. Yet like many other rural communities in eastern North Carolina, Bailey’s Crossroads finds itself at the center of national and international policy debates about immigration, the tobacco industry, the decline of small family farms, and the globalization of corporate agriculture. In their interviews with farmers, farm workers, clergy, teachers, and other local residents, Jones and Thompson documented changes in how farmers have cultivated, harvested, cured, and sold tobacco during the past four decades. In the process, they also explored changes in tobacco culture and politics, as well as the transformation of work, family, and community life.

The focal point for Jones and Thompson’s interviews turned out to be Ebenezer Baptist Church in Bailey’s Crossroads, where Rev. Warren Bock, the church’s pastor for the last fifteen years, has been extremely active in farm labor and other rural issues. As part of the community outreach component of “Listening for a Change,” Thompson taught a Sunday school class at Ebenezer in the fall of 1999 during which tobacco farmers discussed the impact of the changing economy on their church community. In February 1999, Jones led a forum that suggested oral history’s potential for helping members of tobacco communities come to terms with such change. The program was held at a museum in the Pitt County town of Farmville, where college students and townspeople crowded into the room to listen as Jones conducted life history interviews with three tobacco farmers.