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.

Two jobs later, I went to work as assistant production manager for children’s books at Harper & Row, Publishers. Immediately, I noticed that the only other African-American employees ran the elevators, cleaned the building and worked on maintenance.

Unfortunately, like with so many other service jobs in America, they were part of the vast horde of invisible workers, and many employees acted as if they weren’t there. I made it a point to remember their names and to offer a friendly greeting to each of them.

Occasionally, people would say things in their presence as if they really were invisible. If it was something about me that was overheard, I usually got the message the next day. I had my own private intelligence service.

Those were the days when Rosa Parks was too tired to change her seat on a public bus and young students refused to leave lunch counter seats in the South, whether or not they were served or beaten.

Daily headlines announced the beginning of the end for segregation. On morning elevator rides, I was bombarded with questions as if I was personally running the civil-rights movement. “Did you hear what that King person said yesterday?” “What do you think of this Malcolm X fellow?” “How do you feel about a Civil Rights Bill?”

How the hell did they think I felt? I would bite my tongue, say something diplomatic and share a sideways glance with the elevator operator, who was glad that they didn’t ask him such questions.

One day, as I arrived to work, there was a picket line outside of the building. The elevator operators, cleaning folks and maintenance workers — almost all African-Americans — were on strike. I stood on the other side of 33rd street, conflicted. On one hand, I was part of management, but on the other, I was a serious union supporter and had never crossed a picket line before.

As I stood there, one of the strike leaders saw me, walked across the street and grabbed me by the arm.

“You are going to work today,“ he said. “We need you.”

He escorted me across the street, through the picket line and into the building. I thanked him.

Being a “first” was often difficult. Every once in a while, someone would say, “I really like Ken, you know, He’s just like one of us.”

Somehow they thought that was a compliment!

Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at