History MA Student, Jim Wrenn, Presents Paper on 1978 Sanitation Workers Strike at the Southern Historical Association in Baltimore

Exterior of CHASS' Withers Hall.

On November 12, the Southern Historical Association offered me the opportunity to present a conference paper on the 1978 Rocky Mount (NC) Sanitation Workers Strike at its annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. My presentation was included on a panel entitled “Race, Rights and Southern Labor after 1965,” chaired by Robert Korstad of Duke University with commentary by Bryant Simon of Temple University. The Southern Labor Studies Association (SLSA) sponsored this panel within the SHA conference.  My paper was based on the subject of my masters’ thesis.

In 1978, Black sanitation workers in Rocky Mount, NC, waged a ten week community-based campaign, including twenty-seven days on strike that successfully exonerated and reinstated co-worker Alexander Evans. He was arrested and unfairly accused of “stealing” a suit of clothes left near the trash can on his collection route. The workers’ strike transformed into a mass movement for Black voting rights in Rocky Mount and Edgecombe County. The strike’s victory exonerating Evans paved the way for a 1983 voting rights lawsuit, resulting in racially proportioned wards for electing city council.  The racially fair ward system enabled the Black majority city council that governs Rocky Mount today. Forty years later that Black majority city council took steps to memorialize Evans and the strike, erecting historical narrative signs and kiosks and paying restitution to strikers for wages lost in 1978.

The conference afforded me the chance to network with other historians who shared my various interests. The highlight for me was the final plenary featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project and Jessica Marie Johnson, author of Wicked Flesh on the transatlantic slave trade.  I appreciated meeting both speakers. We had just read from Johnson’s book in Dr. Ebony Jones’ HI 792 the previous week!  Many thanks to the NC State History Department for the travel grant that supported my attendance at the SHA conference.


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