The First In Depth Biography of Katharine and RJ Reynolds is Released

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by Chad Nance


By Staff

Thursday night the Reynolda House Museum hosted a launch party for the first official biography of the woman who has been called the “Mother of Winston-Salem”.  Katharine and R.J. Reynolds: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South is the first full-length examination of the lives and marriage of Katharine and RJ Reynolds. Author and Wake Forest associate professor of History, Michele Gillespie gave a brief talk and took questions regarding her new work.


Ms. Gillespie began her remarks by thanking Todd Crumley, Sherry Hollingsworth, Phil Archer, Allison Perkins, Reynolds granddaughter Barbra Millhouse, and Nick Bragg of Mount Airy.

Gillespie explained the journey she took and the process she employed in writing the biography beginning in 1999 when she arrived in Winston-Salem and began to notice that “Everywhere you look the Reynolds family dominates.” She pointed out RJ Reynolds High School, The gracefully imposing obelisk dedicated to Katharine Reynolds, the Reynolds Building, Reynolda House, and various endowments. “I became fascinated with the importance of the family to this place.” Gillespie said.

As Gillespie began the project she was surprised to see how little scholarship has been done on the Renyolds family that put them in their historical and cultural context. The author said that she let “The research drive the interpretation.” When Gillespie started the project she intended it to be focused mainly on Katharine Reynolds. She quickly realized, however, that she couldn’t tell the tale of Katharine without also having to tell the complete and complex story of RJ Reynolds himself. The book evolved into a biography of a place (Winston-Salem) as much as it was a biography of Katharine and RJ.  Gillespie pointed out that there were less than 1,000 people in Winston in 1869, following the Civil War. By 1889, a mere twenty-years later, Winston was the most important city in North Carolina. “By telling the story of the public and private lives of the Reynolds family I could tell the larger story.” Gillespie stated.

The author pointed out that one of the main challenges she faced when writing this book is a pitfall built into the very nature of writing biography itself. When writing a biography inevitably puts the main subjects on a pedestal. “I wanted to complicate the lives of these two people,” Gillespie said, “I wanted to make them human.”


reynolds family

The trajectory of RJ Reynolds life fascinated Gillespie. She noted in her lecture that RJ Reynolds’ ability to re-invent himself was a vital element in his ultimate success and legacy.  The book tracks RJ from his youth and early adulthood on a Patrick County tobacco plantation before and after the Civil War, his journey to Winston with $7,500.00 with which he would build the “Red Warehouse” that would be the foundation of an American business empire, to his decision to retire at the age of 40. After a brief respite Reynolds was back in the game again going head to head with James Duke and creating Prince Albert in a can followed by cigarettes in 1914.

Katharine Reynolds was like-wise skilled at adaptive, personal re-invention. She was a businesswoman who took a $30.00 a month salary and turned it into over $10,000.00 in investments in the stock market in less than a year. Katharine was also the hard working personal secretary of RJ Reynolds, beating out future Reynolds Aluminum tycoon, Richard Reynolds for a higher wage. She was the forward looking and progressive woman who gave birth to Reynolda Village as well as brought the YWCA to Winston-Salem, and was the director in charge of the 2nd War Bond drive of WWI. When Katharine Reynolds died she was hailed as “A new woman for a new day.” and the entire city of Winston-Salem closed down when her body was returned here for burial. Thousands of people line the streets of Winston-Salem as Katherine was taken to her final rest.

According to Gillespie, the city of Winston-Salem is also at the center of the book. The Winston-Salem of the 1890’s through the 1920’s was a boom town riding on the crest of a world-wide wave of industrialization. At the same time Winston-Salem struggled with all of the major social and community challenges experienced by cities like New York and Chicago. There was poor housing, rampant poverty, disease, serious drug trafficking and use (North Carolina’s first official cocaine conviction was in Winston-Salem.) , and racism… many of the same challenges facing Winston-Salem today.


Katharine and R.J. Reynolds: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South looks to be a powerful biography and a fascinating look, not only into the lives of Winston-Salem’s Gilded Age super-rich, but into the evolution of Winston-Salem itself. The evening ended with a reception and book signing by the author. The sound of tinkling glasses and the names of Katharine and RJ Reynolds’ names on the lips of party guest was probably a familiar sound to the old, and storied walls of Reynolda House.


You can purchase a copy of Katharine and R.J. Reynolds: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South HERE and find out how you can visit Reynolda House HERE.



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