Just as the Cigar Factory at East Bay and Columbus streets is making headlines this month (with its gorgeous renovation and buzzed about tenants including Mercantile and Mash), so it was 70 years ago, but for different reasons indeed. On October 22, 1945, some 1,000 unionized workers at the American Tobacco Company factory, which had been producing Cremo and Roi-Tan cigars since 1903, went on strike. They were mostly African-American women fed up with unfair labor practices based on race and gender, though some white women and men participated.
As one of the coldest winters on record set in, the strike continued, and parts of the community rose to help support the strikers and their families. Management finally relented, and the last of the picketing workers went back to their jobs in March of 1946.
While the concessions were modest—slightly higher wages and some lessening of race restrictions on skilled positions—the long-term effects were not. Many involved in the strike became leaders in the larger movement for civil rights and, in fact, the gospel song “We Will Overcome” that the strikers sang became the “We Shall Overcome” anthem of the civil rights movement.