- 1 A Quick Take
- 2 The Two Voices of the Enka Voice
- 3 Forming Enka Plant Culture: Rupert Crowell’s VALUABLE LETTER
- 4 Backdrop: Images of Black Employees
- 5 Porting in the Popular Paradigm: The Amos ‘n’ Andy Radio Show
- 6 The Long Run: Jokes and Sketches
- 6.1 Racist Jokes
- 6.2 Two Comic Sketches, 1935-1936
- 7 Minstrelsy Beyond Amos ‘n’ Andy
- 8 Two Black Historical-Cultural Sketches, 1937: “Ole Man River” and “Uncle” Mark
- 9 Three Cartoons, 1942-1945
- 10 The Rage for Separation: Black and White Cafeteria Workers, 1942
- 11 Epilogue: White Asheville and American Enka, Three Nameless Black Children, and One Nameless Black Worker
- 12 REFERENCES
A Quick Take
Beginning in April 1930 and continuing for some 40 years, the Enka Voice carried regular news of employee engagements and marriages, newborn babies, children’s schooling, fishing and hunting trips, hobbies, visits and vacations of extended families, athletic and performing groups, military service, promotions and retirements, deaths and funerals.
All of that was about white employees, however.
With regard to Black employees, such items were almost completely absent. Enka’s always small group of Black employees (see previous post American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How?: Part II) worked for low wages in low-level jobs, and in the Enka Voice there was almost no evidence they got engaged or married, had babies or children who went to school or college, went on family trips or vacations, had outside hobbies or involvements, joined the military, belonged to churches or organizations, or got promoted. And they rarely retired, and never died or had funerals.
This post is about how the Enka Voice employee magazine helped to create, reflect, naturalize, and sustain the racist culture of the time, both inside and outside the plant. It did so with regard specifically to Black employees, but also more broadly by providing a set of frames, signals and reassurances for the white employees who vastly outnumbered them (100:1 seems a prudent guess).
I do not maintain that American Enka was in this regard different from or worse than most other companies of the time, but neither do I think that any company’s racist policies and behavior should be excused because “everyone else was doing it.” And I hope that what I am able to show here might encourage similar analysis of other companies of the time, of which there were many in western North Carolina.
The Two Voices of the Enka Voice
The first 12-page issue of the Enka Voice (April 1930) carried side-by-side welcoming columns from Technical Vice President A. J. L. Moritz and Commercial Vice President C. McD. Carr. Moritz’s used chummy informal rhetoric that reached across status boundaries, but Carr’s said well, maybe, but let’s keep first things first.
Moritz opened with an endearing image of “our new-born baby,” and identified himself as one of “us Enka workers”–tantalizingly (and disarmingly) close to the “fellow workers” rhetoric of labor union publications. The magazine will enable us, he said, to “get closer in touch with each other, . . . to talk something else besides business, and to show ourselves from the more human side.”
“Remember,” he assured his worker audience, “that this paper is YOUR OWN property. It is up to YOU to run it, to fill it with articles and photos.” Talking about yourselves and your families, he predicted, will “create a closer relation between all of us.”
But don’t get carried away, Moritz cautioned, the Enka Voice is not to be “a grievance outlet,” or used to “promote politics or propaganda.”
“In this spirit,” he said ceremoniously, “I hereby turn our ‘Enka Voice’ over to you” Enka workers, “high and low.”
From the (high) commercial side, Carr soft-pedaled chumminess in favor of a corporate, output-oriented, bottom-line, eye-on-the-prize approach. “Our first and last interest,” he said, “is always the quality of American Enka yarn . . . manufactured amid wholesome and pleasant surroundings by people conscious of their responsibilities, happy in their labor, and loyal to their company.”
It was a sleight-of-hand, logic-reversing palindrome: loyal to the company because they are happy in their labor, and happy in their labor because they understand that the company comes first.
Taken together, the columns highlighted a series of double messages:
- YOU are in charge. WE are in charge.
- We are first of all human beings. We are first of all workers.
- We should be happy within ourselves and our families. We are happy in our labor.
- Talking together as human beings will draw us closer. No amount of talk can or should disguise our rank-ordered relationships.
- Beyond all else, we can/should be loyal to ourselves and each other. We are primarily, and must remain, loyal to the company.
In view of these two statements from on high, the Enka Voice might have been more accurately named the Enka (Speaks-With-a-Forked-Tongue) Voice: one fork for management, and one for workers. The former
- appointed the editor
- controlled rhetoric and style
- approved both departments’ choices of their “reporters” and the items those reporters wrote
- chose and inserted their own “properly” contextualizing images and articles (e.g., patriotic ones) in every issue
- ruled subjects in or out (e.g., no politics, no “propaganda”)
- marked boundaries (both explicit and implicit) of “appropriateness” and
- paid for design and production
A full analysis of all 40 or so volumes of the magazine would illustrate and document each of these prerogatives, structures and processes. But a single post cannot undertake that. In this one I will focus upon how these operated with regard to race and the few Black workers Enka ever hired.
A brief perusal of any issue of the magazine offers abundant evidence that VP Moritz’s “talk together as friends” view and VP Carr’s corporate, bottom-line one merged with regard to race. On that, it spoke with one tongue and a predictable voice.
My object here is to illustrate and anatomize that racist culture, showing that it did not emerge “naturally” and all-in-one-piece out of the surrounding (county, city, or regional culture) culture, but rather was also chosen, programmed, and naturalized by (among other means) the Enka Voice.
Forming Enka Plant Culture: Rupert Crowell’s VALUABLE LETTER
With regard to racial matters, Rupert Crowell, son of Church Crowell of the numerous and comfortably positioned Hominy Valley Crowells, contributed a perplexing and disturbing statement for an early issue (the 8th, November 1930 ) of the Enka Voice.
Two years earlier, before the plant was even built, Church Crowell had been a key liaison between American Enka and his Hominy Valley neighbors, from whom the company was eager to buy (and did) 2000+ acres of land.1
At the time he contributed the “Valuable Letter,” Rupert was a bookkeeper at American Enka.2 He was also the already revered coach of the recently-formed Enka women’s basketball team, referee in the emerging industrial athletic league games, and a Sunday School teacher at nearby Acton Methodist Church.
One might reasonably have expected that his being an Enka employee rendered his article not acceptable within VP Moritz’s no “politics or propaganda” stricture. But the magazine ran it, anyway.
It was a harbinger of what turned out to be the company’s anti-Black culture.3
For a historian, “FOUND VALUABLE LETTER” is a gem of a short (<200 words), dated and signed document, packed with detail:
- where and when the letter was written, to whom, and why
- a 3-generation genealogical snippet of at least two lines of the Crowell family of Hominy valley
- a thumbnail reference to a Ku Klux Klan raid
- the flight from a named location into “the hills” by one of its Crowell-related participants
- when, from where, and by whom the letter was found and given to Rupert
The article and its included data beg for explication and contextualization, and include more than enough details to do some of both.4
Some pressing questions (not all of them answerable) arise at this point:
- When and from whence did Crowell receive the letter, nearly 60 years after it was written? (This one has an answer: from “behind a mantel” in the old Crowell house, torn down in order to build the Enka Community Store. The March 1931 Enka Voice said the store was “recently completed.”)
- Why did a member of the Crowell family feel moved to supply a précis of the letter?
- Who actually wrote the Enka Voice item? A staff writer? Rupert Crowell himself? Someone else in the family? Whoever wrote it, its language implies approval of the Klan (“successful Ku Klux Klan raid”), and includes no disapproving language.
- What kind of KKK “raid” had occurred “near Hickory” was not clear. Several North Carolina newspapers for 1871-1872 carried a few brief references to the KKK and its activities in the Hickory area and elsewhere, but nothing directly connected to an incident such as the one to which the January 24 letter refers.5
- Six years before the Enka Voice article, the KKK had held a large convention in Asheville, but in the years since experienced a dramatic decline in membership.6
- What part(s) of the article were quoted directly from the letter? And what was in it that was not quoted? Did the company at any point see or possess the letter itself?
- Was there general or only partial agreement to publish it?
- Why did the Enka Voice run such a potentially divisive and inflammatory item only 16 months after the plant opened, and while it was still actively recruiting workers?
- Why (especially), was such a decision made barely a year after an accident (covered extensively in the press) involving more than 50 young Black temporary workers being hauled hurriedly (by Enka subcontractor H. K. Ferguson) from downtown Asheville to the construction site in a dump truck that turned upside down on a curve and killed one of them?7
- Did Rupert Crowell approve of or share the sentiments of the article and/or the letter? Or did he view it as (“merely”) an IMPORTANT historical document?
- Who were Dr. H. H. Crowell and Wash[ington?] Ramseur? How were they related to the Crowells? And was Ramseur perhaps hiding with one or the other of them around Hickory Tavern rather than vaguely “in the hills” in 1872?8
- Did the Enka Voice publication surprise or disturb anyone in Enka management?
At this juncture, this much is clear: The letter of January 24, 1872 existed, and someone (“the workmen”) retrieved it and gave it to Rupert Crowell. Crowell (or someone else) synopsized and framed it within a short article. And someone approved publishing it.
The article signaled (intentionally or not) how the Enka Voice would frame and present (or not) Black workers, their families, and indeed Blacks within the company’s emerging cultural, social, and ethical frame.9 In any case, it was a baldly racist statement by the magazine.
So how did the Enka Voice, so positioned and framed, deal with Blacks–either as actual employees or as a broad social and cultural presence–in Hominy Valley and beyond?
Backdrop: Images of Black Employees
As Enka’s plant emerged and hummed into action with several thousand jobs about 16 months before the Asheville economic crash of November 1930, closing banks, provoking suicides, and creating lines for jobs and soup, whites were given all of the in any way desirable jobs, from maintenance and production through all of the skilled jobs (e.g., carpenters, welders, machinists) and on up through all levels of supervision and management, lowest to highest.10
Meanwhile there were no Blacks in production jobs, and whites also held many of the usual “colored” jobs (messengers, porters, “yard men”and others), so that that (undeniably racist) employment demographic didn’t even (however unjustly) mark off a small sector of inferior jobs for Blacks at the lowest levels.
Additionally, it is germane to point out here that (white) women were given the great majority of production jobs, many of them done in hazardous conditions (e.g., the Spinning Room, its humid air laden with corrosive sulphuric acid fumes).
Early labor projections indicated that about 2/3 of all jobs would be held by women, and virtually none of them turned out to be administrative or managerial.11 And only a few were non-production: secretaries, a few clerks, a librarian, a laboratory technician here and there.
Images of Blacks that did appear were of workers assigned to menial jobs and glossed in demeaning, stereotypical ways. Here are 3 striking examples, each treated condescendingly and stereotypically.
The first one, of Julius Caesar Hansberry, did not appear until the magazine was in its 8th year. Hansberry was (verifiably) the Black chef at the Enka Lake Club. The captions above and below the photograph poked fun at the pretentiousness of his name and demoted him to “cook.”12
Several years later (in 1941), a puzzling photo of a deceased young Black employee, laborer Fleishman Smith, was barely captioned at all. Considerable forensic searching allowed me to fill in many details of his sad and tragic life early death.13
My third example comes from considerably later: in December 1950 the Enka Voice ran a large photograph of a white worker receiving his 15-year service pin from VP A. J. L. Moritz. No such photo of Black worker Jim Haynes had appeared when he completed his 15 years in 1944, or 20 in 1949. In fact, then, he had been one of the original employees hired in 1929. (See section of previous post: Shiloh Road (and Community): Jim Haynes and Others.)
Within such a prejudiced protocol, it is not surprising that substantive attention to Black employees and their lives did not occur.
What did appear regularly for years were racist jokes and other such forms. We will review some of them, but first, a singular but important item that in its own way, like the Church Crowell VALUABLE LETTER item from 1930, helped position American Enka with respect to anti-Black popular culture. As millions of listeners heard it almost any night of the week, “Welcome to the Amos ‘n’ Andy Show!”
Porting in the Popular Paradigm: The Amos ‘n’ Andy Radio Show
Racist jokes and other comical forms were ubiquitous at the time American Enka opened, including in radio broadcasts after commercial radio appeared around 1920.14
Heading the list as the most popular of all was Amos ‘n’ Andy, the first episode of which was broadcast by WMAQ in Chicago on March 19, 1928–coincidentally a few months after dirt began to be moved for the new plant, and a year after Asheville’s WWNC went on the air.
The show’s actors were two whites in “audio blackface,” former minstrel performers Gosden and Correll, who drew extensively from the minstrel show tradition that reached back to the 1840s. At least one episode dealt with “The Annual Minstrel Show at the Lodge.”15
Distant (and more powerful) stations’ broadcasts of the show were carried regularly by local stations. On March 1, 1929, the Sunday Citizen listed it as available 6 nights a week on KFRC (San Francisco). By 1930-31 it had 40 million listeners (32% of the 124 million U.S. population). In various formats and media, the show ran until 1960. 129 episodes are available on Archive.org.
The broadcast was first listed in the Asheville Citizen on July 24, 1928 at 10:00 p.m., from WLW in Cincinnati. By late September, a week before the Citizen published a lavish “Rayon Section” announcing the arrival of American Enka to Buncombe County, Sterchi Brothers furniture store was offering two Victor “Orthophonic” radio transcription discs containing Amos ‘n’ Andy’s program on the Hoover/Al Smith election.
More than a few episodes of the program dealt with Amos ‘n’ Andy’s involvement in various (usually ill-considered) get-rich-quick business ventures: the Fresh Air Taxi Company, a lecture bureau, a travel bureau, a rest home, a “gentleman’s farm,” Inkflow Fountain Pens, Honesty Insurance Company, and others.
Those programs offered a model for the November 1932 Enka Voice article, “Amos and Andy Buy a Rayon Mill.” “I is paid down the taxicab bizness,” Andy ‘splains to Amos, “as the first ‘stallment on a rayon mill.”
Significantly, the “All Employees . . . Welcome” part of the large italic script title implicitly included Black employees, who no doubt were not queried on their approval.17
Although Amos ‘n’ Andy gained a huge popular following among white listeners, opposition arose (understandably) from segments of the Black community, who found it denigrating of Black people.
It was particularly offensive that the program’s theme music was the “The Perfect Song” (formerly titled “The Love Strain”) in D. W. Griffith’s notoriously racist The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was shown at Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s White House — the first movie ever shown there. “Writing history with lightning,” the President called it.
That lightning illuminated a revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan, ushering it into its modern era–nearly fifty years after the January 1872 Klan disturbances around Hickory Tavern, NC that produced the letter Rupert Crowell had inserted into the Enka Voice in November 1930, two years earlier.
Having Amos ‘n’ Andy buy a rayon mill and running a years-long stream of racist jokes in the Enka Voice (to which we will turn next) yielded a gain for American Enka owners and managers of a half-dozen sorts.These features allowed them to:
- employ the popular and familiar pose of A. J. L. Moritiz’s opening column
- deploy the racist meme of century-old minstrel shows upon which the radio show was built
- mask the concrete racist policies, structures and culture executives and managers had crafted before American Enka opened, and kept in place thereafter
- hire as few Black people as possible, and segment them “properly” and “safely” within low-level jobs
- pay no attention to Blacks’ daily lives outside the plant, and present stereotypically and condescendingly the very few who made it into print.18
The Long Run: Jokes and Sketches
NOTE: In order to survey the repetitive instances and types of characteristically (not infrequently egregious) racist representations, I will in most cases insert examples as they appeared in the magazine. I do not approve of such representations and usages, but I do believe that a full presentation of the material as originally published is more evocative than verbal description or transcription.
It is important to understand at the outset that the racist jokes that appeared in the Enka Voice were in no way offset by examples, images or discussions of actual Black employees, of whom there were very few.
Amos ‘n’ Andy was a nationwide joke on a weekly (or even daily) basis, but the racist jokes in the Enka Voice came only one page per month, and not every month at that. But when they did, they fit predictably within long-established racist memes and stereotypes.
The first page of jokes that appeared (in the second issue, May 1930) included two racist ones (item not suitable for expansion; précis of longer one follows):
The two relevant jokes here are the brief “A minister was marrying a colored couple . . . ” and the longer “Get into the right church . . .” Brief as it is, the former manages to employ standard “colored” dialect (“I takes nothing. I’se being tuk”) to parody both Black marriage on the whole as well as the relationships within them.
The longer one is more sweeping in its parodying and denigrating of Black life: a naive and ignorant “old colored man” wanders into and joins one (white, as they all were at the time) mainline church after another (Methodist, Presbyterian), unaware of substantive differences between them. But following Biblical “signs” of disapproval from above (cow dies, house burns) he is frightened off from both. Then he happens upon the Baptists (at the low end of the social/cultural scale) and joins them, hoping for a better sign. It comes from his son, who (in appropriately fractured language) tells him that Ma has “runned off . . . with anudder man.” The old man’s “Thank God I have jined the right church” reaffirms his theological ignorance and naiveté, as well as the prior judgments on Black marriage.
As evidence of the long run of such jokes, I submit only a dozen or so examples from Enka’s first 15 years (1930-1945).19 They appeared sporadically during the Depression, which reduced the scale and frequency of the magazine’s publication, but more frequently thereafter.
Since almost all the jokes baldly invoke broadly shared racist stereotypes, I will forego commenting upon them.
Four from 1930-1934: an undertaker, a party, the New Deal’s NRA, and Sam’s memory
Click on each item to enlarge:
A little more than a year earlier (September 1933, p. 13), the magazine had published a joke-like item called “The New Game,” referring to the whole New Deal as an “emergency measure” like a “seven-card stud” card game, whose good parts would survive and bad ones perish. “Play the game,” it advised, “It’s the Law of the Land.”
On the same page as the “What N. R. A. Means” joke was another, longer one with the same blunt epithet, but a more complex (and internally contradictory) development. It appeared as a separate column in November 1934, “How’s Your Memory?” I include here a brief opening excerpt and a précís of the rest. To see the entire narrative, click on the excerpt.
His name was Sam, “the rememberingest n—- that ever lived.” His memory was so accurate that he was called to testify at many a trial. In a cotton field one day, Satan appeared and asked the planter if he owned such an extraordinary boy, offering $1000 for him. The planter refused the cash offer, but offered to give Sam to Satan if Satan could catch him in an error.
Three from 1936: a mortgage, 12 Biblical ‘possums, and a child’s name
Three from 1939: Black wives and husbands
A broader range: a full page from early 1938
Although I am focusing here on anti-Black racism, the Enka Voice also frequently verged into derogatory stereotypes of Native Americans, Appalachian whites (not the “Native” whites it so assiduously sought at the outset) and women in general (but especially wives).
Two Comic Sketches, 1935-1936
Edward F. Younger published a series of nearly 200 Negro dialect-laden comic sketches in the Chicago Tribune from late 1930 through 1939. The dialect was inept, the couplets of his verse were crude, and the situations contrived, but someone (likely “Asheville author” Jay Walker, mentioned in an endnote) found them acceptably humorous, and the Enka Voice ran two of them:
Minstrelsy Beyond Amos ‘n’ Andy
Among its other appeals, the November 1932 Enka Voice article on the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show (see above) echoed the stock of minstrel paradigms popular with the American public, including the episode about “The Annual Minstrel Show at the Lodge.” On October 28, 1933, 175 Enka workers attended a “halloween masquerade dance” in the “girls’ spacious in-door basketball court” transformed into a “realistic harvest scene.” Most wore “costumes of an original and humorous tendency.” 20
One might have expected the pumpkin heads, scarecrows, witches, and the like, but such images were displaced by checked aprons, curls, pinafores, gigantic womens’ hats, pigtails, exaggerated getups of schoolchildren, Sunday go-to-meetin’ couples, pirates and clowns.
But also in the array were several “colored couples.” One pair cross-dressed, with the man decked out as a heavily lipsticked Black “Madam Queen.” Another married pair consisted of husband in monkey suit, tied by a string to his sunbonneted, dominatrix wife’s arm. “Made up as colored,” a mother-daughter pair “had evidently paid close attention to the antics of . . . small negro boys . . . [provoking] a riot of mirth.” The “colored” attendees with their exaggerated attire and antics echoed minstrelsy, but no minstrel tunes were mentioned; all music was supplied by Homer’s Rhythmic Aces.
Four years later, the Dramatic Club, a unit of the Enka Athletic Association (E.A.A.), presented a full-fledged minstrel show at the local Sand Hill High School auditorium. The Enka Voice article was illustrated by photos from the rehearsal, but text was brief: “we don’t know yet how it was received . . . must have been a howling success.”21
Two Black Historical-Cultural Sketches, 1937: “Ole Man River” and “Uncle” Mark
In September and October 1937, two large stereotypical photos of old, poor Black men appeared, together with about 20 column inches of text. Each of the two photos was larger than any other image of a Black person who ever appeared in the magazine (4 1/2 x 6 inches for “Ole Man River” and 4 1/2 x 7 1/4 for Uncle Mark” Thrash). Both deserve attention.
Ole Man River
All one can know about the man pictured below is found within the photograph itself; the accompanying text does not name or locate him (except by implication, on “Ole Man River”–vernacular for the Mississippi, but in this case perhaps its Rock River tributary).22
The photo appears to have been taken on a dock, with the Black man sitting on a belaying post wrapped with small-diameter rope for securing vessels to the dock, a skiff (probably flat-bottomed, perhaps 5 x 8 or 9 feet) beside the dock in the water. His clothing is poor and ill-fitting.
The river is otherwise empty of vessels. The photo’s shallow depth of field prevents identification of what might be a manufacturing plant (with smokestacks?) on the far shore.
Moving from photo to text, one finds familiar memes of “glamorous days on the lower Mississippi” with “wonderful plantation homes . . . magnificent parties and the vast river traffic with its splendid historical packets. But the focus then shifts to the upper Mississippi “from Galena to St. Paul,” where steamboats (some towing barges) appeared in the 1850s and 1860s.23
The article closes with fond reminiscences of “the high palisades and forests . . . sturdy, tight-roofed homes of the pioneers . . . and close-built hillside villages.”
Of the old Black man in Spaanbroek’s photo, or anyone like him, there was neither mention nor description.
Preceding this piece by one month was another on “Uncle” Mark Thrash, which included some descriptive text on his life.
It appears that the article (click here to see text and photo) derived from a trip that a Medical Detachment–perhaps including Enka employees–took to Ft. Oglethorpe Georgia and Chattanooga for military training–presumably at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.24
In any case, the “Uncle” Mark Thrash in this photo (published in other places as well) is shown (as the Enka Voice characteristically did in its rare photos of Blacks) as old (he was 117 at the time), poor, rudely dressed in jeans, apron, cast-off military [?] shirt and jacket, holding his straw hat and sitting in a rough woven-seat chair beside his “two-room cabin of white-washed clapboards.”
To Enka Voice readers, Thrash was recommended as a genial and kindly “relic of the old South” who “enjoys nothing better than to reminisce of the old days with Marse Thrash”–them “good ole slavery days,” one is invited to conclude.
Now more than 80 years later, “Uncle” Mark is still featured on the web page of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga Military Park (est. 1900).
A brief National Park Service biographical statement on him (2018) contains a photo of a better-dressed
and dignified Thrash. The statement says that “Almost everything about Mark Thrash’s life is shrouded in mystery and memory.”25
Three Cartoons, 1942-1945
For reasons I do not understand, having scoured so many volumes of the Enka Voice , it printed very few cartoons, which were ubiquitous in popular media. The following three are the only ones I discovered.
The first of these echoes the misogynist and anti-wife (and marriage) memes frequent among the jokes, and the second contains the only overt statement I have seen since the Sunday Citizen‘s September 1928 “Rayon Section” of the preference Dutch executives expressed for “native-born” (read, white) workers during their American Enka plant site-seeking days in western North Carolina. 26
The Rage for Separation: Black and White Cafeteria Workers, 1942
During World War II, as the cartoons above make clear, the endemic racism within the Enka Voice continued to operate. How absolute it was, was evident even as the magazine presented employee efforts to support the war. Cafeteria staff were a relatively small unit of 21 Black and white employees–so far as I have been aware, the only such racially mixed group within the entire company.
When 100% of the Cafeteria staff bought war bonds (apparently the first unit in the plant to do so), the magazine sent photographer G. Spaanbroek to photograph them. The photographs that were published (made by the same photographer, and–it seems reasonable to suppose–at the same time on the same day), revealed, however, that although they worked together harmoniously, Blacks and whites could not be pictured doing so. The 16 white men and women appeared at top right (going “over the top”) and the five Black women in an inferior position at bottom left on the same page–holding the same sign, but not going “over the top”.27
The photo of these Black women is the only one I have seen of more than a single Black worker. No names were given for any of the workers, but the man in the chef’s hat was Jeter P. Sands, who lived a few houses up from my family in the Enka Village, and whose older son was my best friend.
Besides being a chef, Jeter played banjo and his wife Ethel played piano. I loved to sit with them in their living room while they played. “Chinese Breakdown” was always my favorite. Jeter had grown up in western North Carolina (Jeter P. was for Jeter Pritchard, a progressive North Carolina newspaperman, lawyer and senator), but a couple of times each year the family boarded their 1941 Packard sedan and drove to visit Ethel’s family in Wetumpka, Alabama.
Epilogue: White Asheville and American Enka, Three Nameless Black Children, and One Nameless Black Worker
I said at the beginning of this post that if one wants to know about the working, family, and social lives of American Enka’s white employees, one can find details (including thousands of photographs) in the Enka Voice. But if it is those same aspects of Black employees’ lives one seeks, one will be almost completely disappointed, because except for a very few, there aren’t any.
I return to this issue briefly here at the end, with the only three photos of Black children I found while surveying the 21 volumes (1930-1950): 250 25-page issues (more than 6,000 pages).28 I have not tried to count or estimate the average number of photographs in each issue, but there are dozens (or scores) of them of white employees and their families in any random issue.
So that the 1930s racial context will be both clear and forceful, I begin with a brief discussion of a large, widely popular, and (importantly) elite, all-white event: Asheville’s annual Rhododendron Festival and American Enka’s involvement in it.29
White Asheville and American Enka: The Rhododendron Festival and the Realm of Rayon
Every year from 1928 until World War II, the biggest public event in Asheville–promoted heavily in special festival editions of the newspapers–was its Rhododendron Festival. That first Festival took place in mid-1928, several months before a special edition of the Sunday Citizen announced the coming of American Enka’s WNC plant.
The event grew rapidly, drawing audiences from throughout western North Carolina and tourists from great distances. Downtown department stores looked forward to heightened sales. Small businesses tailored ads to Festival-linked markets.
Some parts of the week-long festival were open to the public. Anyone–white or black, elite or working class–who wanted to come to watch the parade was free to do so. But other parts were open only to the white elite.
The whiteness of Asheville and Buncombe County was actually celebrated in Central Bank and Trust Company’s Buncombe County: Economic and Social: A Laboratory Study (1923), which assured interested parties that
In regard to race ratios Buncombe is well above the state average in the white majority over negroes, and also stands fairly high in the percentage increase of whites over blacks. This is probably due to the fact that it is a mountain county and that there are no large farms or plantations which employ a great number of negro laborers. Did it not include a city like Asheville, with its negro population, Buncombe’s percentage of blacks would be almost negligible.30
The festival’s focal event featured a secretly-chosen (by whom was never publicly revealed) King and Queen and their Rhododendron Court, drawn from Asheville’s (and neighboring states’) most elite sectors. Associated events such as fancy dress balls, receptions, formal teas and dances were “by invitation only.”
Being chosen for the Court was a mark of social standing and distinction, and all of its members were white, as were the socially and economically prominent members of its various operating committees (businessmen, physicians and lawyers, city officials). Indeed, one could hardly hope for higher acclaim than to be named as a member of the Court.
The annual namings were eagerly anticipated and celebrated. An Asheville Citizen article of May 30, 1934 (“Big Wardrobe Necessary”) spelled out in full detail the dress not only expected but required of participants for the “invitation only” events. 31
In June 1930, a month shy of the first anniversary of its plant’s opening in July 1929, American Enka entered its first float in the (third annual) festival parade: a huge wooden shoe, touting its Dutch origins and ownership, and not incidentally diverting attention attention from the Netherlands’ racist past (in the global slave trade and thereafter), drawing attention instead to its quaint wooden-shoes-and-royalty cultural image.32
A small photograph in the Enka Voice showed (and gave the names of) four “Dutch girls” who were riding on the float.
Annually until the hiatus during World War II, Enka entered an elaborate float for the parade competition, but the Dutch motif quickly gave way to the promotion of rayon.
In 1937 Enka’s float was adorned with women employees (all named, with their departments identified, in the accompanying article) wearing rayon gowns, dresses for various occasions and bathing suits. A full page review of the event appeared in the Enka Voice. The float featured “strands of Enka rayon . . . attached to a large map of the United States,” the article said, “and held together b a young lady wearing a gorgeous Enka rayon dress.” A slogan down one side proclaimed rayon as “An Asheville Product Distributed Nationally,” and on the other “Enka Leads In Fashion.”
For the baby parade the company entered a small float with Spinning Department worker Glenn Howell’s children Norman (9) and Nancy (7) as the KING AND QUEEN OF RAYON. The “satisfied expressions on their Majesties’ faces,” the Enka Voice caption said, “prove that all’s well in the Realm of Rayon.”
Three Nameless Black Children
Black Girl on the Merry-go-Around
Stark evidence of the racial bias at issue here is an Enka Voice cover photograph entitled “Colored Fair” from June 1938–at the same time that the all-white Rhododendron Festival was receiving such extensive coverage in popular media.
The photograph (credited to the magazine’s usual photographer G. Spaanbroek)–of a young, neatly dressed Black girl on a merry-go-around horse–is not itself racist.
But ask any of the questions one would normally ask of such a photograph, and the racism emerges. What is the child’s name? Who are her parents? Where does she live? Where does she go to school? Does she have siblings? Even the event itself is rendered generic and deprived of historical reality by the “Colored Fair” quotation marks. Where (and what, and when) is (or was) the “Colored Fair”?
None of these questions were answered, even at the bottom of the back of the cover page, where one might expect to find them. But every one of the nearly 40 photographs included in the issue (except for one, which I will come to in a moment) carried names, jobs, locations, and other identifying information in their captions.
In 20 years of the Enka Voice, I found only three photographs of a Black child, and the only one that included any information about either the child or the photograph was this one:
The fairly extensive caption tells who took the photograph, where he lived (unfortunately, Emory GA does not appear on current maps), where it was taken Grady [Baptist Hospital?] Colored Emergency Clinic, where it had been published before, twice before including The Emory Alumnus, and the awards it had won in a (named) exhibition.33
But who the child was, we don’t know (nor any of the other associated personal information also missing about the girl on the merry-go-round). Nor why this small boy was in the Colored Emergency Clinic, nor who the attending physician [?] was.
As presented, the photo invites a racist response in several ways:
The little boy is framed by sterile white: white-suited legs, white table cover, white receptacles and a battered white wash pan. Presumably the wall tiles had some color (light brown?), but the B&W photo doesn’t register it.
The upper body, head, arms and face of the attending adult (most likely male) are not visible. This bodily truncation abstracts him from personal identity and thrusts the black-clad black child–particularly with his white-bandaged hands, black/white upturned eyes and open mouth–to the foreground.
So featured, the child invokes a generic “little Black boy” stereotype (at perhaps 8 or 9 years old, he is probably too old for the “pickaninny” category), which neither “needs” nor offers answers to the same questions evoked by the image of the Black girl on the merry-go-around.
Also fitting the “little Black boy” rubric of the photo above, the small “Candy” photo at left is the most abstract and decontextualized of the three of Black children I found in 20 years of the Enka Voice.34
The iron bed frame, institutional white covering, white wall and terrazo floor mark the photo as having been taken in a clinic or hospital. Of a nameless, hospitalized young boy whose parents (siblings?), wherever they may be, are at least distanced outside the frame.
Thus the “Candy.”(with period) title subordinates whatever life circumstances, thoughts, hopes, wishes, or yearnings the child may have had to a piece of sweet stuff.
G. Spaanbroek was an Enka Voice photographer as well as Manager of the Sewing and Spinnerette departments. In 1935, he lived in the upscale Dutch, all-white Enka Lake section of the Village.35
The “Study” designation calls for the photo to be seen as simply an interesting image, perhaps a fortuitously and quickly snapped idea for a serious one.36 Where was Spaanbroek when he took the photo? How did he happen to be in the hospital? Did he know anything about the boy? Did his father or mother perhaps work at Enka? If Spaanbroek knew anything, he revealed nothing, leaving the child as lonely in the photo as he must have been in the room.
And finally . . .
Finding “- – – – – – Bill”: A Nameless Black Worker
The men sent into the Village by the maintenance department at “the plant” to paint our house every 4 years were Herman Haynes and Henry Brown (who lived in one of the pre-Enka farm houses west of the village). If a tree had to be cut, it was forester Charlie Brooks or his tree-climber “Happy” Taylor. I remember them all well. They were white. And they went by their names. We didn’t know (and never wondered) about the anonymous men who ran the big riding lawnmowers or drove the street-washing trucks, but it was OK because they were white, too.
But if we needed coal delivered, or a neighbor needed a plumbing repair or some other “odd job,” it was Bill we called for. Not Bill SomeLastName, but Bill with (always) the shamefully racist N-word prefix, like you would say “Big Earl” Smith. Shamefully, we never called, or heard him called, anything else. My brothers, my parents (when they were still living), and several neighbors I have found to ask, all remember calling him that. Or don’t recall him at all, though he worked around the village for years.
Bill was a large man with a friendly manner who always came to the back door to do our bidding. One of my young outdoors-oriented brothers became fond of him, hanging around in the woods with the crew when Bill had been detailed to help Happy Taylor cut some trees.
But no one knew Bill’s last name, or apparently, anything about him, except that I and another brother recall our mother saying that someone had told her he “might have been in the Army in World War II.” If that was true, and Bill had come (or come back to?) Enka after 1945, that means my memories of him are from from when I was 7 or 8 years old, my older brother from maybe his early teens, and my younger brother from when he was in grammar school, when Bill would have been at least in his twenties.
However all this was, or may have been, Bill is to this point remarkable for his complete absence from the Enka Voice: no last name, no reference to any person who was identifiably him, no photograph.
So, pushing beyond the Enka Voice, I cast about in the usual sources to see if I might find him or some clue to where he might be found.
One possibility turned up in the 1931 city directory, since that year should have included anyone old enough to be working at Enka who would become WWII draft or enlistment age by 1941. Checking for anyone marked (c) (colored) employed at Enka whose first name was William, I found several members of the Sherard family living at 16 Hibernia Street (an all-Black street): William and Jesse (his brother?) in unspecified jobs (empl), and Daisy (their sister?) working as a lab[orer], but not at Enka.37
Those bits urged a check in the 1930 or 1940 Asheville/Buncombe County census, which might have listed types of jobs as well as employer. But from 1900 to 1945, there was no Sherrard.
From there I turned to emailing to the 3 or 4 people I could find addresses for, who I knew were living in the village at some interval from the 1930s to about 1956, when I left for college. I also posted to Facebook and Twitter, but if any one of the hundreds of people who lived in the Enka Village over the years recalled him, they were gone now, or chose not to reply.
The nub of Bill’s situation, then, was this: He was for years a reliable and helpful presence for all of us. And everybody knew what to call him and what he did, but nobody knew who he was or what his name was.
Stephen O. Addison et al., Seen the Glory: Mark Thrash Buried the Dead at Chickamauga: The Story of the Oldest Person of Our Country, 1820-1943 (Cleveland, TN : S.O. Addison, 1991); Ancestry.com; Asheville Citizen-Times (1910-1960); Enka Voice (April 1930-December 1950); Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007); Henry Correll and Freeman Godsden, All About Amos “N” Andy, and Their Creators (New York : Rand McNally, 1929); Asheville Citizen-Times, 1900-1960; Hickory Tavern [N.C.] Eagle (1871) [later Carolina Eagle] (1871-1872); A. M. Moser., F. J. Herron, J. C. Cheeseborough, P. S. Randolph, and I. E. Monk, “Buncombe County: Economic and Social: A Laboratory Study.” Asheville, NC: Central Bank and Trust Co., June 18, 1923, https://ia600706.us.archive.org/12/items/buncombecountyec00univ/buncombecountyec00univ.pdf; Papers Read at the Meeting of Grand Dragons Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at Their First Annual Meeting Held at Asheville North Carolina, July 1923, Joyner Rare Book Collection, East Carolina University, https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/11176; Raleigh Daily Telegraph; Raleigh Weekly Era; Lydia B. Simpson, All Roads Lead: from Ancient Ancient Silk Road to Multinational Synthetic Fibers Industry in a Southern Appalachian Town (PhD diss., Middle Tennessee State University, 2017); U. S. Federal Census (1910-1960).Notes
- For a brief account of the siting and land-buying process, see previous post, The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville.
- 1930 census, Lower Hominy Township, Sheet 27A, line 14
- Four earlier posts analyze how that culture revealed itself before the plant was built and after it opened: “The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville (the 1920s context and the promise of Enka for the city); Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers (exclusion of Blacks from labor pool); The American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How? Part I (the Dutch and the global slave trade, mountain sellers and Dutch buyers, ) and American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How?: Part II (Black workers at Enka).
- There is not space to do all those things in this post, but I hope to augment and source this account later.
- A brief September 7, 1871 article in the Raleigh Weekly Era praised Hickory Tavern’s Carolina Eagle for its caricaturing the alignment of “colored people” with the Democrats. About a month later, however, the Yorkville SC Enquirer quoted the Eagle‘s report that the U. S. Marshall had been serving warrants in “that section of the state” for being “members of the ku-klux.” In a long article a week later, the Eagle (by then under a new editor) took a strong stand (“Ku Klux Confessions”) against the Klan, lamenting that so many young men had been “unwittingly enticed” into joining, and noting the Governor’s promise to pardon all who renounced their membership.
- The Asheville Citizen, November 3, 1930, p. 6 carried a report that state membership in 1925 had been almost 130,000, but had since dropped to only 170.
- See Asheville Citizen, November 9-29, 1928.
- Local newspapers indicate that W. W. Crowell was farming in Buncombe County at least as early as 1875.
- For the frame, see preceding post, American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How?: Part II.
- For extended narratives of this period in Asheville, see Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History, (2007), 111-121 and Lou Harshaw, Asheville : Mountain Majesty (2007), 213-220.
- There apparently were several exceptions, but they were not included in the Enka Voice. The 1930 Asheville city directory (p. 201) listed Grace Burnette as a “forewoman” at Enka, but I found no further information on her. A later post will examine this large sector and set of issues.
- For fuller commentary on Hansberry, see Mocking Julius Caesar Hansberry in a previous post.
- See Fleishman Smith in a previous post.
- On the advent of amateur and commercial radio in Asheville, see previous post “Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond.
- As no doubt “the most popular series in American radio,” the program has been written about by many. Correll and Gosden’s All About Amos “N” Andy, and Their Creator (New York : Rand McNally appeared in 1929. InThe Adventures of Amos “N” Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon (New York : Free Press, 1991), Melvin Patrick Ely locates the origins of the show in the earlier (1926) show Sam ‘n’ Henry on WGN. A recent analysis of the commercial branding of Amos and Andy by Pepsodent toothpaste is Ben Madeiros, “Restoring Whiteness, Sanitizing Blackness and Authenticating Modern Artifice: Pepsodent Toothpaste and the Visual Branding of Amos ‘n’ Andy, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 38 (2), 343-357. Wikipedia’s excellent, copiously referenced article lists much of the available historiography. In its nationally syndicated years, the show was sponsored by numerous other products (including Rinso White).
- See list at https://archive.org/details/amosandy1/.
- Whether the included black images or those of Gosden and Correll were syndicated or prepared locally was not specified.
- For illustration and elaboration of these components and others, see previous post American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How?: Part II, which treats all of them, as well as the Enka Village as a racially exclusive “sundown town” (with colored maids for executives). American Enka was by no means unique in this regard. Other rayon companies (some of them multinational corporations like Enka) followed the same “wisdom” to preserve white jobs and the racist culture built into such a system. For an extended discussion, see Lydia B. Simpson’s chapter “Worlds Collide: The ‘Rayon Gold Rush’ Comes to the American South” in her Middle Tennessee State University Ph.D. dissertation, All Roads Lead: From Ancient Silk Road to Multinational Synthetic Fibers Industry in a Southern Appalachian Town (2017), 56-75.
- These by no means make up an anthology. There were scores of them through the years, and they were still appearing in the 1950 volume–the latest I have seen. I did not have access to the last 20 or so years of issues.
- The Enka Voice article (long and full of individuals’ names) did not appear until January 1934, pp. 8-9. Rather than reproduce it, I selectively paraphrase it here.
- A collage of photos from that year’s Halloween party (p. 19) included no blackface attendees.
- That the article and the photo of the steamboat are sourced to “The Rouser” (presumably the employee magazine) of the J. L. Clark Mfg. Co. of Rockford, Illinois, suggests that perhaps the steamboat photo and the river background shown in Spaanbroek’s photo are from a section of the Rock River rather than the Mississippi. Click here for full article.
- For an account of one such early voyage, click here.
- Information here is from the text of the article. Group member Capt. W. A. Brewton M.D. had been a physician at American Enka since at least April 1930.
- Some of the story of Thrash can be verified in the Federal Census. See for example the 1930 census, which confirms key data, including his 49 year-old wife Jessie and child Catherine McConley (b. 1925). I was unable to locate an entry on Thrash in the WPA Slave Narrative Project, (1936-1938), but see Stephen O. Addison et al., Seen the Glory: Mark Thrash Buried the Dead at Chickamauga: The Story of the Oldest Person of Our Country, 1820-1943 (1991).
- For an extended discussion of this thematic, see my prior post Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers.
- By June 15, 1944, there was also a Colored Cafeteria, but presumably not at this time. It was mentioned in the Asheville Citizen, April 11, 1950, p. 10.
- Actually 6250 pages so calculated, minus the January-March issues in 1930–about 36 pages.
- I have dealt with the festival in several sections of previous posts. See Class and Culture: The Rhododendron Queens; and An Impossible Cultural Dream: The Rhododendron Festival. Other posts have dealt in various ways with the historic pattern of racism in Asheville. Most pointedly, see Retrospective I: A Primer on the Sad Truths of Slavery in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina. Also see Chase, Asheville: A History (2007), 121-127 and numerous other published sources.
- A. M. Moser, et al., Buncombe County: Economic and Social: A Laboratory Study (1923), pp. 35-36.
- For an earlier post that dealt with the elitism of the event, which my mother personally struggled to deal with as an academically superb but socially disadvantaged Asheville High School student in the mid-1930s, see Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville.
- In several previous posts, I have attended to the “Dutch-ness” of the company: Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers; The American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How? Part I; American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How?: Part II.
- I have not been able to identify either Ted Leigh or the named clinic.
- As I have noted earlier, the usual issue of the magazine included something close to a full page of photos of white employees’ young children, and frequently individual images of older children on other pages.
- 10 Hillcrest Avenue; Asheville city directory, 1935, p. 657. The following year, the directory lists his address (p. 615) at 147 Brevard Road (a quite large house) in West Asheville–perhaps to enroll his young daughter into Vance Elementary School. Spaanbroek’s photos appeared in almost every issue of the Enka Voice. His most likely subjects were outdoor scenes (pp. 16-17 of this same issue), Dutch-oriented images, and–once the war began–former Enka employees in uniform. The August 1944 issue carried a “Here’s Your Town, Fellows” 3-page display of 19 Asheville street scenes of buildings, traffic and pedestrians.((The North Carolina Room [now Buncombe County Collection] at Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library has about 25 Spaanbroek images from this series. At the size they were printed (ca. 2 x 3 in), no pedestrians were identifiably Black.
- Fortuitously or not, the photo appears to have been carefully composed or edited.
- p. 628