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  • Louis Venters

On My Reading List: New Novel Evokes Jim Crow-Era Charleston & Interracial Cooperation

I just saw this glowing review of Michele Moore's The Cigar Factory: A Novel of Charleston (University of South Carolina Press, 2016) in the Charleston Post & Courier and am intrigued. It's the latest offering from Story River Books, the imprint of the late renowned author Pat Conroy, and it centers on a building known locally simply as "the Cigar Factory," a landmark building that to some extent embodies modern Charleston.

Built as a textile mill in 1881, the five-story brick structure was soon taken over by the American Tobacco Company, which continued operations there until the 1970s. In 1945-1946 it was the scene of a massive interracial strike that (momentarily) raised hopes for a post-war New Deal in the Deep South. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 but deteriorated in subsequent decades under a variety of tenants. One effort at redevelopment failed during the Great Recession, but the current one seems to be working. Clemson University will be a major tenant, consolidating its Charleston-based architecture programs there. The project recently won an award from the Preservation Society of Charleston, the country's oldest historic preservation organization.

New marker at East Bay and Gillion streets in downtown Charleston

The novel, which follows the lives of two female workers in the Cigar Factory, one black and one white, and their families, looks compelling. With chapters that alternate between the two protagonists, it reproduces the racial segregation that prevailed in the Cigar Factory and across American society in the first half of the twentieth century. Only at the end, during the strike, do the two protagonists meet, and then it is to demand, in unison, better wages and fair treatment. The reviewer notes the extensive use of the Gullah language in the novel's dialogue, which is most welcome.

Charleston, like much of America, has often had a hard time telling the whole truth about its past. This is certainly changing, and not just in response to the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church last spring. Just a few days ago, for example, a new historical marker was unvelied that introduces the geography of slave-dealing in the city. As a story not only of segregation and oppression but also of interracial cooperation to promote social justice, The Cigar Factory looks to be an important contribution to bringing a fuller history of South Carolina into the mainstream.

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