January 4, 2013

Looking back at the search for 'firsts'

Life was difficult for African-Americans when I was young. While jobs were plentiful and relatively easy to get, those reserved for people of color were usually service jobs or required manual labor.

Therefore, it was a mark of distinction when one of us was hired by a progressive employer for a job that required using our brains instead of our brawn.

We called them our “firsts:” the “first Negro” to be hired somewhere or the “first Negro” to accomplish just about anything of value, such as being the first to graduate from a school of higher learning.

Although there are fewer such opportunities today, they still exist or the national unemployment levels for African-Americans would not be double those for whites.

In the mid-1950s, with the exception of Civil Service, it was difficult for an African-American to find a good job. As the saying went: “If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, you can hang around; but if you’re black, get back.”

Therefore when I was asked by a friend, a supervisor at the State Employment Service, if I wanted to integrate George McKibben and Sons, a large book manufacturer in Brooklyn, I jumped at the chance.

They had never hired an African-American for a management job, and they needed an assistant customer-service manager. I took the test, aced it and, to my surprise, was instantly hired. Ed Gerrity, the manager, couldn’t have cared if I was purple — as long as I was able to reduce his difficult work load, which I did.

Book production was not taught in schools at the time, and there was lots to learn, so when I was not busy at my desk, I spent as much time as I could in the plant — watching and learning.

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