When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont

When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont

When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont

When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont


"Bennett makes a provocative argument about the importance of family labor on the tobacco farm, the empowerment of women and children, and the development of a community culture."--Jeannie Whayne, author of Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South

" When Tobacco Was King reconstructs the lives of farm families in the Tobacco South, as well as their work and their political struggles, in vivid, nuanced detail. This brilliant account joins a short list of indispensable histories dealing with bright leaf tobacco."--Adrienne Monteith Petty, author of Standing Their Ground: Small Farmers in North Carolina Since the Civil War

Tobacco has left an indelible mark on the American South, shaping the land and culture throughout the twentieth century. In the last few decades, advances in technology and shifts in labor and farming policy have altered the way of life for tobacco farmers: family farms have largely been replaced by large-scale operations dependent on hired labor, much of it from other shores. However, the mechanical harvester and the H-2A guestworker did not put an end to tobacco culture but rather sent it in new directions and accelerated the change that has always been part of the farmer's life.

In When Tobacco Was King, Evan Bennett examines the agriculture of the South's original staple crop in the Old Bright Belt--a diverse region named after the unique bright, or flue-cured, tobacco variety it spawned. He traces the region's history from Emancipation to the abandonment of federal crop controls in 2004 and highlights the transformations endured by blacks and whites, landowners and tenants, to show how tobacco farmers continued to find meaning and community in their work despite these drastic changes.


Carolina sphinx moths descend on tobacco fields at dusk in the late spring and early summer. They drink nectar from tobacco flowers and lay thousands of pearly eggs on the undersides of the maturing tobacco leaves. The caterpillars emerge three to five days later and are soon as green as the plants they feed on. They also develop a distinctive prong on their posteriors, making it obvious why they are better known as hornworms. Left alone, the insects can rapidly destroy the very leaves from which the farmer gains his profit. “The worms … would spend their days eating the leaves you were trying to sell,” farmer William Hawthorne explained; controlling them was “a constant battle with nature … in a big plot in the hot sun.”

Difficult mostly because of the need to bend continuously in the sun for long hours, worming was both tedious and painstaking. “Endless labor” was one eighteenth-century observer’s description; an “arduous task … that is never done,” wrote a nineteenth-century planter. A farmer in the 1930s put it simply: “[It] ain’t pleasant work.”

Perhaps because of its nastiness, worming is often in the forefront of the memories of those who have grown tobacco. Farmer Robert Hawthorne likely knew this when, in the presence of journalist Meg Medina, he bit a hornworm in two to the disgusted/delighted squeals of his daughter and nieces. He said he did it “purely for the crude entertainment of the help,” but Medina surmised it went deeper than that. “He’s counting on the power of family memories—even repulsive ones—to make at least one of these girls want to stay on this farm.”

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