Special Assignment

This is a true story of a defining moment in my life from my book, In the Right Place: A Gallery of Treasured Moments (Carr Twins & Co. 2006). This revision is as fitting today, January 15, 2018, as the nation observes the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, as it was when first published.

The scene: Proof machines clatter and a check sorter hums with activity outside the manager’s door in a bank Operations Center. A West Coast transplant to the Deep South is being briefed on her new assignment, a dark secret that is about to change this workplace forever.

 

“James wants to see you in his office when you finish that batch of deposits,” my supervisor said.  Except for annual performance reviews, a summons to his office was rare and seldom good news.

“I asked you here to give you a special assignment,” James said. “Because of your California background, you are the most likely person for this job. “You are used to working with different people,” he said, emphasizing different. “We want you to train Mary, our newest employee.”

Because of my previous experience and my accuracy and speed, I had been training employees since shortly after being employed by this bank. What could be so special about training another new employee?

James, who was usually quite fluent, was hesitant as he explained that the federal government was intruding where it had no right and telling our bank how to run its business. President Lyndon Johnson had signed something called a civil rights bill, so we were being forced to hire our first Negro employee. His southern drawl emphasized negro as though his lips were unfamiliar with the word. Management had decided to place Mary in the Operations Department to shield her from public contact.

I reminded James that Mary would be our second black staff member. The main office employed an African-American porter who made coffee and cleaned the kitchen. “That’s different,” he said with no further explanation.

I was embarrassed by the way the employees treated Mary on her first work day when I introduced her to each of them. I thought time would make a difference. How wrong I was! They moved their coffee cups to their workstations. At break time, Mary and I went alone. The others worked during my assigned lunch period, leaving me alone with Mary every day.  Afternoon break was no different.  When Mary was in the kitchen, they stayed out. When they entered as we left, they scrubbed the tables and wiped the chairs before being seated. None of the ladies entered the restroom for weeks after Mary arrived.  Only my direct supervisor and the manager spoke to me unless absolutely necessary for workflow.  After many weeks of this routine, it was clear that I, along with Mary, had been ostracized for exposing the staff to a new and uncomfortable experience.

I was appalled at the southern traditions that denied minorities access to restaurants and forced them to sit in back seats on public buses. I disapproved of segregated schools and churches. Although I felt strongly about these disgraces, I disapproved of ineffective—and dangerous—protest marches and sit-ins. By accepting a special assignment that others refused, I made enemies, but I left a mark in history. No holiday will be named for me. My statue will never stand in a public place. But by giving hope to one person during the civil rights movement, I changed the future of a corporate entity.

 

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8 Comments

Filed under Events, Holidays, Memoir, Rants and Raves

8 responses to “Special Assignment

  1. Gary Lea

    So very true. A moment of delight in my life was when my mother, who grew up in a time when it was “normal” to be racist and bigoted, was looking at pictures of my daughter’s class in elementary school. She went to a private school that was very diversified. My mother’s comment, “Look at all those black people” to which my daughter replied, “Where?”. I was so proud of her.

  2. Debra Ruyle

    I loved this story. When my son (Daniel) was in the first grade he kept telling me his girlfriend had the best tan ever. So on back to school night I met her and was so tickled when I realized it wasn’t a tan at all.

  3. What year was this? I heard that Barbara Lee gave a speech on MLK Day which included encouragement during this period of an upsurge in bigotry. She said she wasn’t allowed to attend public school as a child living in San Leandro, but now represents San Leandro in Congress. I needed that as it seemed to me we were regressing. More accurately, I don’t believe human nature has changed or will change. We will always have the same percentage of decent, good people, fortunately the majority, but we will also have the same percent of the other kind. Unfortunately, the few who are greedy for power and money are willing to do whatever it takes to get it, including trading on racism.

  4. Reblogged this on ewritessite—Eloise Hamann and commented:
    I asked my friend Violet the year this took place, and she believes it was 1965.

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