The Smoking Shed

By Richard Schramm


Carrboro, North Carolina

In 1969 I took a job teaching English in a high school in Warrenton, North Carolina, a town in the northeastern part of the state with about 1,000 people and enough old, white-columned homes to suggest a rich history. In the 1700s, Warrenton prospered as a center of the region’s cotton and tobacco plantation economy, so much so it could support an academy for the sons of local planters. By the early 1800s, it was home to a couple of renowned academies for women, too.

In the decades after the Civil War, Warrenton’s prominence faded as it settled into a somnolence that seemed to slow the very passage of time. Driving to Warrenton, I often felt as if I were heading into the past. Tobacco-curing barns made of unfinished pine logs and rusting tin dotted fields that stretched to distant tree lines. Frame houses, some little more than shacks, weathered and unpainted, recalled Depression-era photos. In town, the hardware store displayed a mule collar: not for decoration, for sale.

I arrived just as the 1960s caught up with Warrenton. I brought two suitcases. The 1960s brought school desegregation and a foretaste of the feminist revolution to come. To my surprise, the crop that ripened in those rustic barns played a role in both.

Through tireless legal maneuvering, Warren County had avoided implementing the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling outlawing racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. By 1969, however, the county had run out of courtroom tricks. Yet they persisted. When I showed up in late August to teach, the superintendent told me he was making “one more appeal to the judge.”  

“Don’t know when school will open,” he said. “Go home. We’ll call you.”

Two weeks later, I was back in Warrenton. The judge had said, “Enough!”  

Delayed for 15 years, desegregation, when it came, came swiftly. The school board turned the black high school into a junior high. It closed the Native American school. The teens from that school along with hundreds of their black counterparts came to the county’s nearly 50-year-old flagship high, which stood on the site of the antebellum male academy. The high school was, for many white Warrentonians, a pride-inducing link to their illustrious past.

While the school district no longer enforced segregation, the students rigidly maintained it. I taught over 100 students a day, about 25 of whom were white. Race determined the geography of my classes. Typically, a small white enclave and an even smaller Native American redoubt bordered a large black settlement. In the halls students rarely talked with classmates of a different race. In the gym, in the auditorium, in the stadium, I never saw them mingle. The cafeteria was the most segregated place of all. On the first day of school, like settlers grabbing homesteads in a land rush, the white kids claimed their tables, the black kids theirs, and the Native American kids theirs. At those tables they were immovably ensconced for the rest of the year. Despite this self-imposed separation, however, the students regarded each other not with hostility, but with a cool, wary sense of distance.

But there was one place, aside from the athletic fields, where the boys at least came together — the smoking shed.

To understand the smoking shed, you must understand the ambivalence many tobacco-belt North Carolinians felt toward the golden leaf. The most lucrative crop a Tarheel farmer could grow, it was a mainstay of the state’s economy, virtually the only source of income for many communities east of Raleigh. In the 1900s, Warrenton’s economy relied on tobacco as much as it had in the 1700s. Had it been a pickup truck, it would have sported a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “Tobacco pays my bills.”

You might think that a community so dependent upon tobacco would have a lenient attitude toward youthful smoking. Yet the parents of Warrenton didn’t want their children to embrace the devil’s habit. Even so, with a grudging nod to reality, they acknowledged their adolescent sons smoked. The public manifestation of that acknowledgement was the high school’s smoking shed, the only place on campus where the boys could light up without being suspended. The girls had no such privilege.

The shed was a wood-frame structure about the size of a small carport. It was clad on three sides and roofed with the same corrugated tin used to build tobacco curing barns. Unheated, unlit, and windowless, it stood behind the school near the parking lot. Every school day, before the first bell and at lunchtime, about two dozen boys — black, white, and Native American — squeezed in.

The shed’s floor was a cushion of tobacco, cigarette paper, and filters. One iron rule, scrupulously obeyed, governed the shed’s use: No cigarette butts were allowed beyond its threshold. If the faculty found one, the principal would yank smoking privileges. The assistant principal policed the area daily and would gleefully have induced widespread nicotine withdrawal just to burnish his reputation as a badass.

When I crossed the parking lot, the smokers sometimes urged me to join them, an invitation I never accepted. I did stop to talk, however, and noticed that shared addiction promoted generosity among the afflicted. If a boy were out of cigarettes, another would be quick to offer a Winston or a Marlboro. No light, no problem. Matches were abundant.

The smokers joked with me, but more important, they joked with each other. With the telling exception of girls, they talked about all the things you’d expect them to — the weather, cars, sports, school, whatever. Their conversations were ordinary, but that very ordinariness made them extraordinary. These were the conversations they should have been having before and after class, in the halls, in the cafeteria, in the gym, in the auditorium, in the stands. This easy camaraderie, though fleeting, seemed genuine. It was, at least for me, what true integration, rather than court-imposed desegregation, was supposed to look like. And it happened because of tobacco.

Motivated perhaps by a yearning for equality, or by the rebelliousness of the ’60s, or by a craving for nicotine, about mid-year, unexpectedly, a delegation of girls asked the principal for the same smoking privileges the boys had. I don’t know how this effort got started. White and black girls were involved; I can’t remember if any Native American girls were. There were no demonstrations or demands, no shouting, merely a simple — but really not so simple — request to be treated the same as the guys.

The principal and many faculty resisted because of the connotations of loose morals that cluster around the image of a woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips. “Ladies don’t smoke,” a proper lady teacher told me. However, among the girls asking for the right to smoke on campus were many who, according to the ladies on our faculty, were destined to become ladies themselves. They were from “good families,” popular girls — even, I think, a couple of cheerleaders.

To the surprise of all and the shock of many, the principal said yes. He didn’t open the smoking shed to girls, a wise decision for both spatial and hormonal reasons. Instead, he gave them a room of their own, a “smoking lounge,” which turned out to be the corner of a boiler room in the school’s basement. Dirty, dark, and airless, it sent the same message to the girls the shed sent to the boys: If you embrace the devil’s habit, you will do it in a version of hell. It was nearly invisible, concealed behind a steel door at the bottom of a dank stairwell. If the parents of Warrenton had to acknowledge that their teenage daughters smoked, at least they didn’t have to see them do it.

The significance of the girls’ gentle insurrection lay not in the spoils it won, which were downright unhealthful, but in the fact it occurred at all. Though modest and undramatic, it represented a surprising expression of interracial solidarity on behalf of gender equality. I’m sure the girls didn’t see it that way. They simply wanted a place to light up. Nonetheless, they brought to Warrenton a wholly unforeseen outbreak of what I can only call feminist activism. And it happened because of tobacco.

I don’t want to exaggerate the benign effects of nicotine on race relations at the school. If the smokers learned anything about racial harmony, that knowledge, like their cigarette butts, never made it past the thresholds of their dens. Proof of that came the following year, after I’d left Warrenton. Issues more serious than smoking privileges exploded at the school. This time, there were demonstrations and demands and shouting and guns and arson and a state of emergency. Having arrived late, the 1960s stuck around.

Nevertheless, during my time in Warrenton, what the courts had to command tobacco accomplished without compulsion. For a few minutes each day, in the most unlikely spots on campus, it brought a few students as close as anyone came that year to realizing the ideal of integration, which shone forth as the glowing tip of a Marlboro.