Starting in the early twentieth century, the American Tobacco Company operated subsidiary Cigar Factories in plants across the nation. In Charleston, the Cigar Factory operated from 1903 to 1973 in a five-story brick Victorian building located at the intersections of East Bay, Columbus, and Blake Streets. The building functioned as a textile mill before American Tobacco Company executives leased the structure from Gainesville Mills in 1903, and finally purchased it in 1912. The factory employed large numbers of young, working-class, black and white women and men to produce the United States’ biggest-selling five-cent Certified Cremo and ten-cent Roi-Tan cigars. The heavy production of five-cent Certified Cremo brand cigars, and the youth of its workers, led to the factory’s nickname of “Cremo College.”
Cigar Factory labor was generally tedious and repetitive. During an eight-hour shift, employees worked along assembly lines. Managers segregated factory floors by race, and assembly lines by gender. Black and white women typically rolled cigars, inspected tobacco leaves, packed cigars into boxes, or applied labels to cigar boxes. Black men rolled cigars or loaded boxes of tobacco onto the factory floor. White men often worked in the highest paid factory positions as machinists, foremen, or oilers.
From the 1920s to the 1930s, the Cigar Factory’s workforce grew to approximately 1,400 workers, with an annual payroll close to one million dollars. Women comprised nearly sixty percent of the factory’s workforce. At this time, Cigar Factory management often tried to appeal to workers with accommodations that would provide a sense of employer benevolence, such as an assembly/meeting room, a piano, and a kitchen. These workplace incentives failed to replace what Cigar Factory workers wanted most by the 1930s: better wages.
Along with other U.S. factory workers, Charleston’s American Cigar Factory employees turned to labor unions to press for better pay and working conditions. Throughout the 1930s, national unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) vied for the allegiance of American workers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted a pro-labor stance, and the New Deal-era Wagner Act (1935) supported union organizing, but the AFL and CIO conflicted over how to best organize workers. The AFL believed that separate craft unions composed of skilled workers offered greater leverage in negotiating with management. These divisions also generally benefited skilled white male workers. In contrast, the CIO supported organizing both skilled and unskilled workers into industrial unions. In Charleston’s Cigar Factory, African American workers and white women were relegated to unskilled laborer positions, while white male workers, particularly machine operators, were classified as skilled workers. The CIO’s acceptance of all workers, regardless of skill level, gender, or race, made industrial unionism more appealing to African Americans and women.