Forgotten History – American Snuff Strike of 1950
Most of us have never heard this story and I admit I was a bit taken with it. This story begins January 13, 1950 where at that time the American Snuff Plant, located at Keel and Front Street, was the south’s leading manufacturer of snuff. The workers including 350 members of the United Steelworkers Union (CIO) were angry over wages, and the amount of the dues being deducted from their checks. They were mad at these injustices but also wanted a certain veteran employee reinstated. Negotiations for six weeks had failed as management would not budge.
Tensions were mounting on both sides and American Snuff started hiring nonunion workers. Not good.
On the same day 150 members of the United Woodworkers of America Union (also part of CIO) and employees of Hartwell Handle Company makers of wood products walked off the job.
On February 21, 1950 the American Snuff Strikers were in Chancery Court because they had been found guilty of assault and each was fined $10.00. Five others were accused of violating past injunctions. Chancellor Louis Bejach admonished all parties and threatened to jail them This was getting worse by the day.
By February 26, at six weeks in, Mayor Watkins Overton wound up in the middle of the strike because picket line outbreaks and because many of the strikers and their Union officials ended up in both City Court and Chancery Court paying fines.
One afternoon a fist fight broke out, just outside the Chancery Court rooms between union officials and the company. Injunctions were filed against both parties and both ended up in Mayor Overton’s office as he tried to mediate.
March 4, 1950, two striking sisters Leotta Rayburn and Martha Daniel, threatened to kill Mrs. Eva Arnold, a 20-year-old nonunion worker. They attacked her with an umbrella and were both arrested.
March 6, 1950 a federal mediator sat down with management and union representatives in an effort to settle the strike. The union wanted a minimum of 90 cents per hour instead of the present 79. An offer of 84 cents was rejected. Earl Crowder, district representative for the union, said if these cops would leave, we’d have this thing settled in one week.
MPD put a heavy dawn patrol on downtown streets to try and curb the violence.
March 13, 1950. The violence continues, sporadic brick tossing and hair pulling resulted in the following women being sent to jail, Helen Askins, Betty Barfoot, Mary Haley, Rosa Sewell, Claudine Lucas and Mary Parker. The men sent to jail from projectile tossing and verbal threats to non-union workers were James Atkins, Vance Barns, Elmo Trammel and Marvin H Smith.
March 25, 1950 Police stated on March 25 that all the telephone lines had been cut to the plant.
At the same time, employment benefits were denied to 252 employees of American Snuff employees
By March 30, 1950 it’s now a 77-day strike. Strikers started stoning the company bus which delivered non-union employees to the plant. The bus driver was injured as every window in the bus was broken by bricks and an occasional railroad spike. Three cars of non-union workers were overturned. A crowd of 300 strikers along with Union workers from Firestone, International Harvester, and the United Steelworkers, were now violent. It turned out to be a 500 person free-for all brawl. The first Police officers who arrived on the scene were attacked. Their windows were broken, and the officers were caught in the melee. Officer E. W. Parker had his night stick taken from him and pulling his revolver and told the strikers that the next person who came at him “would die”. Another officer pulled his shotgun and fired it in the air, then aimed it at the strikers and told them they “would be next”. Police called for help and 70 officers, lead by Police Chief Claude Armour, arrived in force all heavily armed and ready to quell the rowdy crowd. Chief Armour called for a Fire Department Pumper and when it arrived its windows were broken out. They hooked to a plug and were prepared to use a high-pressure hose stream on the strikers at police request. 6 people were injured and taken to St Joseph’s Hospital, 21 were arrested and taken into custody. 10 were sent to jail.
By May 8, 1950, the strike in its 116th day, was deadlocked.
On May 26 a small explosion occurred breaking 10 windows and destroying 12 cases of snuff. Police Inspector Edward Reeves said the blast was intentionally set by someone on the inside. President Martin Condon III estimated the damage at $100.00. No one was hurt. Police Fire and Ambulances raced to the scene as once again things were boiling. Neither side would budge.
One of the guys escorting the non Union workers was Personnel Director John Miller. His wife was my 2nd grade schoolteacher, and a friend of our family. John had been an All-American guard at the University of Alabama and was a guy you didn’t want to mess with if you were smart. I knew him and figured that out at an early age. He was a big powerful guy.
By June more than 50 strikers had been arrested.
June 4, 1950 a second explosion within two weeks rocked the plant, blowing out windows on all 4 floors. The bomb was thrown from the levee railroad tracks on the west side of the plant. The bomb bounced off the first-floor windows and exploded outside the plant. It blew a whole 1 foot deep and 2 feet wide and chipped some masonry. At the time the night watchman Vernon Kidd was investigating a prowler around the corner and was knocked off his feet by the blast and heat. Police questioned two unidentified men, but they were released. The bomb was made of black powder.
On July 13, 1950, another attempt to settle the 189-day strike had fallen through, once again Mayor Overton tried to settle it. Neither side would budge.
July 18, 1950 the strikers voted unanimously to halt the strike and return to work. Company President Martin J Condon III, when he received the telegram informing him of the vote, termed the strike and resulting incidents “regrettable”.
Most have not heard of this “melee” aka riot and as the area now called “The Snuff District” is today being revitalized. What soon will be a neighborhood almost became a battleground seventy years ago.
Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.
3 thoughts on “Forgotten History – American Snuff Strike of 1950”
This is a great one Joe and brought back a lot of memories. I was only 13 years old at this time but remember it well .All the neighbors had their say as well as my Dad.Now, I look ack and see that I lived in a Historical time…Thanks, Rena
I have an employee roster that I have compiled from the 1938 Memphis city directory for those who may be interested. It is at wherepeopleworked.blogspot.com
Very cool, thanks Ed!