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Historical marker honors sanitation strike

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Former Rocky Mount sanitation worker Leonard Giles, second from left, and Jean Pryor, right, help unveil the new state historical marker in honor of the Rocky Mount sanitation workers strike on Saturday at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Spruce Street. Pryor is the daughter of Naomi Green, the coordinator of the Rocky Mount chapter of Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time of the strike.

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Roughly 200 people gathered Saturday at the Booker T. Washington Community Center to celebrate the unveiling of an N.C. Highway Historical Marker commemorating the 1978 Sanitation Workers’ Strike.

The marker was placed at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Spruce Street, very near the marker commemorating the visit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rocky Mount.

That location once was the home of the sanitation department for the city of Rocky Mount, according to a press release from the city. The widow of Alexander “Preacher” Evans, the worker whose plight led to the strike, and several surviving strikers were present at the unveiling.

The marker reads: “Sanitation Workers’ Strike led by African American workers and the civil rights coalition, 1978, against sanitation dept., here. It reshaped the labor movement in N.C.”

The marker commemorates the time from July 10 to Sept. 25, 1978, when Rocky Mount city sanitation workers led a successful community struggle against racial injustice in defense of co-worker Alexander “Preacher” Evans, according to the release. Sponsored by The Phoenix Historical Society and the African American History of Edgecombe County, the ceremony highlighted the efforts of workers who walked out on the job in support of Evans, who was charged with theft, arrested and suspended from work for removing a suit of clothes left near trash, the release said.

The unveiling of the marker is just part of an ongoing effort by the Rocky Mount City Council to help correct some of the mistakes of the past, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney said during the ceremony.

“The City Council has also directed me and my staff to look at ways we may be able to repay the wages lost during this strike,” Small-Toney said.

Small-Toney said 18 days of wages originally were lost by workers during the strike. Staff members are trying to figure out how much money it would take to repay those wages now.

Last year, the City Council acknowledged the 40th anniversary of the strike with a resolution noting the unfairness of the actions taken at that time and issuing an apology for the decisions by former City Council members and other community leaders that led to the need for a strike.

Leonard Giles, one of the sanitation workers who participated in the strike, was one of several speakers at Saturday’s ceremony. In a later interview, Giles said he was glad to see the city offer an apology last year.

“It was late, but it was great,” Giles said. “I also feel excited about the unveiling of this marker. That strike was important because it led to some changes on the City Council and the creation of the ward system.”

The Phoenix Historical Society worked in conjunction with the N.C. African American Heritage Commission to help make this historical marker, the seventh in the city, possible, said James Wrenn, vice president of the society. At Saturday’s event, Wrenn explained that the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program only approves markers if they are demonstrated to be of statewide, not just local, importance.

At Saturday’s ceremony, Wrenn honored the efforts of Brandie Ragghiahti, whose research and writings helped demonstrate the connection between the 1978 Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Rocky Mount and changes to labor rights laws in North Carolina. Wrenn also honored Tameka Kenan-Norman, chief communications and marketing officer for the city, for her efforts in producing an hour-long documentary that focused on the strike.

The documentary, which was commissioned by Small-Toney, had its premiere at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Booker T. Washington Community Center, following the marker unveiling.

Kenan-Norman said the documentary soon will be available for viewing on YouTube. A link to the documentary will be posted on the city’s website sometime next week, Kenan-Norman said.

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