by Saladin Muhammad (Rocky Mount, North Carolina)
The Phoenix Historical Society, a grassroots organizations that includes members of the Black Workers For Justice and the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150, launched a Black Worker and Freedom Marker project in Eastern, NC. The Phoenix Society’s stated mission is – “To recover, record, and promote the unique history of Edgecombe County experienced by members of its African American community”.
Since January 2011, the work of the Phoenix Society has establish the following historical markers in the cities of Tarboro and Rocky Mount – 1/29/11 George Henry White, the last African American Congressman elected in the late 1800s; 9/3/11 The CIO Operation Dixie, dedicated to the unionizing of 10,000 Black tobacco leaf house workers across Eastern, NC in 1946 in over a period of 2 months; 5/4/13 Thelonious Monk, great Jazz musician born in Rocky Mount.
On 8/31/13, a Knights of Labor (KOL) marker will be unveiled in Tarboro dedicated to the 5th NC State Assembly of the KOL in 1890, and pointing out the significance of the African American local worker assemblies in Edgecombe and northeastern NC since 1887.
The Marker unveilings are a real worker and community. They include presentations by historians, worker and community leaders, and relatives of people associated with the historical experience and site being recognized, along with food and fellowship. The Operation Dixie marker unveiling had a 94 year old women tobacco worker, Mrs. Cora Baines Tann who worked at the former tobacco leaf house across the street from the Marker.
Since the Phoenix Society project, historical markers have been unveiled by other committees for Ella Baker in Halifax County on June 2012 and for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union Local 22 of Black tobacco workers in Winston Salem in April 2013.
In NC a state with the lowest rate of unionization of all 50 states in the U.S. at 2.9 percent, and with a racist right-wing dominated state legislature, this Marker Project faces major challenges and must be seen as part of the political and cultural flank of the Black Freedom and labor movement in NC.
Black Workers For Justice and the NC Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150, views the Black Freedom and Workers Project as a component part of the historical and political geography of the rank-and-file democratic social movement unionism that they have focused on building over the past 30 years.
Operating mainly with funds from membership dues and in kind community support, the Phoenix Historical Society marches on demonstrating that working-class leaders, some still working in a diesel engine plant for nearly 30 years can produce historians that document the history of the Black working-class.