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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Those Places Thursday: Cremo College, Site of Reconstruction and Freedom in Charleston

Riding around Charleston was always in the plan as we visited family when I was a child.  Walking around the old streets so chock full of history takes me back in time, especially when my mom used to tell me stories of old houses and buildings.  What she didn't tell me was the history of Cremo College, aka The Cigar Factory.

The Cigar Factory first started its life around 1882 as a cotton mill after the Civil War.  The South was in ruins and this five story building had a major impact on the helping the economy during the Reconstruction time after the ravages of war.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century.  In 1903, the American Cigar Company leased the property as the company started production in five locations in the South.  Women, both black and white, were the mainstay of the employees who prepared the tobacco leaves, made the cigars and packed the cigars.  They were unskilled labor, yet this employer was the major private employer in Charleston for a number of years.  Generally, the higher paid positions went to the caucasian males.

The Cigar Factory produced two cigars, the Certified Cremo and Roi-Tan.  According to what is written, the combination of young employees and the large production numbers of the Cremo Cigar gave rise to the nickname "Cremo College."

The Cigar Factory also has another prominent spot in history as it is believed the song "We Shall Overcome" was first sung during a six month strike in 1945 led mostly by the black employees, who were the majority of the employees.

When I was told some ten years ago, that my great grandmother had worked at the cigar factory, I was surprised. When and why?  She was born just before the Civil War and lost her father during the war.  Both sides of her family lost everything, men and farms, in the war.  She married in 1883 and spent the next years raising a family.  I suspect she started work there after the death of her husband in 1922.  I had visions of her being a secretary.  Why did I think that?  Most likely, she was one of the poor working white women who either stripped the leaves, or rolled the cigars or packed them.

The 1920 census tells me she has no job other than being a wife.  The 1930 census tells me she had moved to Grant Homes on Meeting Street where she is still listed as no job.  She was around the age of 70 at that time.  Would she still have had to work?

While I don't know exactly what she did or when, the information I can find on the Cigar Factory tells me she worked long hours for that small paycheck.  I have yet to find any employment records of the Cigar Factory.

Now, when I ride past the newly refurbished Cigar Factory, I picture her with her beloved snuff and her petticoats.  And I wonder.

Ahh, genealogy.  Guess we finally overcame the Cremo College, once and for all.  Now I just want to read the new novel about the factory.


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