Hamlet, N.C. 1991 – The Real Cost of “Cheap Labor”

Zoom event    |   Thursday February 25   |   11.30am EST

To register for the event (which is free of charge)

On the morning of September 3, 1991 the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina burst into flames.  But managers had locked and bolted the factory’s doors. Engulfed in choking smoke and heat, the workers could not escape. Twenty-five workers died, fifty-five were injured. Eighteen of them were women, twelve were Black. Forty-nine children lost their parents.

Typical of the industry and the region, the workers were paid just above the minimum wage. The plant had never been inspected for health and safety. The employer, Emmet Roe, was fiercely anti-union.  He was eventually convicted but was released from prison after merely four years.

Eight decades after the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, such industrial disasters were supposed to have been a thing of the past, and yet “the story of Hamlet … shows how cheap labor, cheap government, and cheap food came together in a way that was bound for tragedy.”  

The Hamlet Fire exposed the real, human cost of the drive for cheap labor. In remembering those so sadly lost we also consider how to support Black women and other workers who continue fighting conditions of extreme exploitation.  


Brief introduction by John Cox, director of UNC Charlotte’s Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies; Cox was a labor organizer and activist near Hamlet in the late ‘80s

Excerpts from 1994 documentary, “Out of the Ashes”:

Ashaka Binta, Black Workers for Justice, who was active in campaigning for justice for the victims and survivors


Labor historian Bryant Simon, author of The Hamlet FireA Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2017)

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For more background on this atrocity2017 article in Smithsonian Magazine

Co-sponsored by Charlotte’s Romare Bearden chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and by UNCC’s Department of Africana Studies; Women’s & Gender Studies Program (WGST); Center for the Study of the New South (CSNS); Department of History; and Atkins Library

This event is part of a weeklong online conference, “Human Rights in an Age of Polarisation and Disparities,” organized by UNC Charlotte’s Department of Global Studies and Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights (HGHR) Studies and by the Department of Politics, International Relations and Human Rights of Kingston University (UK)

Information about the conference & about registration for the events

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