Untonia Harris was on a break from his job as a forklift operator at the Atkinson Cotton Warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee. As he was getting a drink of water from a fountain, his supervisor said he wasn’t allowed to do so.
“Hey,” said the supervisor.
“What?” Harris responded.
“I need to put a sign here that says ‘white people only’,” said the supervisor – who is white.
Harris chuckled, not taking him seriously. “Put our sign on the wall then, because I’m fitting to drink it.”
After he takes a drink, Harris asks the supervisor what happens when they catch him drinking from it.
“That’s when we hang you,” the supervisor responded.
This exchange isn’t a scene out of a movie from the Jim Crow era of the 1950s. It is part of a recorded exchange form January 2014 that Untonia Harris recorded on his cell phone after months of similar exchanges with the supervisor. It is part of the evidence in an employment discrimination suit.
That same month Harris and another employee, Marrio Mangrum, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They said that the harassment from the supervisor had occurred daily since August of 2013. Sometimes it even got physical. Harris recalled an incident where the supervisor came up and randomly kicked him in his rear. That was the last straw for him. When their complaints were not getting any resolution at the EEOC, Harris decided to take matters into his own hands and go public with the recording.
Over the course of six months, the supervisor called the black employees at the warehouse “monkeys” and pulled down his pants to tell them to “kiss his white tail.” He would refer to Harris as “black boy” and order him to get his cotton. He told Mangrum that he should learn to “think like a white man.”
The supervisor also longed for the days when all of this was perfectly normal.
Jim Crow laws were enacted after the end of the Civil War and the official emancipation of the slaves. This legalized segregation and discrimination based on race in all areas of life. These laws would remain in place, many officially, some unofficially, until the 1960s. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, signs indicating “Whites Only” or “Colored Only” in such things as restaurants and public water fountains were common, especially in the south. The historic law made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, or national origin (gender would be added later). It applied to all facets of American life – schools, workplace and facilities that served the general public. It was also the official end of the century long era of Jim Crow.
For the warehouse supervisor, this was not a good thing.
“Back then, nobody thought anything about it,” he says on the recording. “Now everybody is made to think it’s bad.”
The owner of the warehouse E.W. Atkinson, whose family has been in the cotton business for 60 years, claims he wasn’t aware of what was going on – a claim that Harris disputes. Harris says that Atkinson was aware, having even met with the men when they aired their complaints. Atkinson further distances himself and the company by saying that the supervisor was an employee of a contractor that handles management of the warehouse.
The contractor, Federal Compress, also claims it was not aware of the incidents and has since done a thorough investigation. They said the supervisor was removed from the facility and has since been fired from the company. They also “regret” that this was not brought to their attention when it first started happening.
Both Harris and Mangrum say that they put up with it for so long because they had to feed their families. Mangrum is a single father and the only one who can work. Harris, who has worked in the cotton industry for 12 years, is also the sole breadwinner in his family and says jobs are scarce in the area. Both men were laid off in January.
The men say they have been deeply troubled by the incident. For Mangrum, it’s a modern day reminder of what struggles his ancestors had to go through, including the humiliation and the helplessness. “All I see was my granddaddy…and going through the things that he had to do. I can imagine now what they were going through,” he says.
Six months after the complaint was filed, and just a few days after the recording went public, the EEOC announced this week they are now working on a settlement with Atkinson Cotton Warehouse for the two men.