Atkinson Cotton Warehouse, a cotton gin in Memphis, Tennessee, subjected Black employees to extraordinary racial discrimination, refusing to allow them to drink out of a “whites only” water fountain, calling them racial slurs, and threatening them with hanging — not decades ago, but in 2014.
Employee Untonio Harris used his cell phone to record his white supervisor making threats against African American workers if they attempted to drink from a water fountain designated only for white people.
“Hey!” says the supervisor in the recording.
“What?” asked Harris.
“I need to put a sign here that says ‘white people only’.”
Harris also recorded his attempt to use the microwave.
“I am going to use the microwave,” said Harris in the recording.
“Hell no!” said the supervisor.
“Why can’t I use the microwave, man?”
“Because you are not white.”
“As a white man, we don’t even let Larry use it.” Larry is an African American man who has worked at the cotton warehouse for at least a decade.
In the recording, the supervisor goes on to talk about the days of racial segregation. “Back then, nobody thought anything about it. Now everybody is made to where to think it’s bad,” says the supervisor in the recording.
Thirty seconds later in the same recording:
“Put your sign on the wall then, because I am fixing to drink it,” said Mr. Harris. “What would they do when they catch me drinking your water?”
“That’s when we hang you,” said the supervisor.
The supervisor had called his African American employees “monkeys” and told them, “You need to think like a white man.” Mr. Harris reported that the supervisor “pulled his pants down in front of us and told us to kiss his white tail,” and told Mr. Harris, “Hey, Black boy, get over there and get my cotton.”
Mr. Harris and fellow employee Marrio Mangrum filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is now mediating with the cotton gin’s owner about a possible settlement. The supervisor still works at the gin but was on vacation when reporters called last week.
The lives of African Americans have been profoundly shaped by the era of slavery, the era of racial terror and lynching that followed Reconstruction, and the era of Jim Crow and racial apartheid, which this cotton gin boss’s comments vividly and painfully reference. “I think about this every day, every day of my life,” said Mr. Harris.
EJI believes the history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States has created continuing challenges for all Americans and more must be done to advance our collective goal of equal justice for all. EJI’s calendar, A History of Racial Injustice, focuses on African American history and is part of an EJI series of forthcoming reports and documents that explore the legacy of racial bias in the United States and its continuing impact on contemporary policies and practices.