Deeply religious since her son’s near-death from drowning, Katie Murray finds it hard to comprehend the hatred whites feel for her black people. She wonders why God allows the racial discrimination to continue.
I always wanted to be a beautician. I never thought of anything but a beautician ’cause, you know, I used to do my sister’s hair and my mother’s hair, and I’d do it pretty good. But when I was home in North Carolina, working on the farm, we didn’t have money for school. We didn’t have time for nothing. We would get up at four o’clock in the morning and work until seven or eight at night and stop for supper. I didn’t get a chance to go to school much, really. In the spring of the year the only time we got to go to school was when it rained ’cause we was always out farmin’—tobacco, corn, wheat. And in the fall of the year we’d go to school maybe two weeks out of the month, two weeks straight maybe. In my high school years they brought in French and typing, but of course they were special courses. You had to pay for them. My parents couldn’t afford it, so I never took them. Anyhow, I just barely made it through high school.
Then after I went to New Jersey I was thinking of making a decent salary and sending money back home, and then I got pregnant and I had to raise the child. You know, most black people at that time were really poor, so I thought I wouldn’t make any money being a beautician.
In New Jersey the first job I had was workin’ for a mattress factory where I made bed mattresses. It must have been around nineteen sixty-two. It was piecework, and we got twenty-two cents for a double mattress and eighteen cents for a single. It had to be divided between two people because two people had to work on the mattress together. You had to make at least thirty mattresses a day to have a decent salary. I liked the job. I got a chance to go to different places. I don’t like to sound conceited, but I was a good worker, so whenever they came up with a new bed mattress my supervisor would always ask me to go up to their other plant in Boston to show the girls how the mattress was done. They paid the hotel fee and plane fare and took you to lunch at the Whitman. Boston was a very prejudiced place and they didn’t have no black people working at the plant there. When I went up there and showed them how the job was done, they told me that they had never taken an order from a Negro and weren’t about to then. So I had to report back to my supervisor, and a woman who had been there for forty years got fired for making that comment, though I understand that she was rehired after I left. That time I stayed two weeks. Then I went back to New Jersey and they come up with another new mattress, so I had to go back, and that time they wanted me to stay a month. But those women gave me such a hard time. I went to work with a headache, and I came home with a headache. I wish I had stayed. I probably would have been the first black woman to make supervisor.
But I left there and went to work at a sewing-machine plant. That was commercial work and we was on a labor grade. I was labor grade ten. That was the lowest. Even if you could make over a certain amount a day, they wouldn’t pay you for it. We was only making a hundred and thirty dollars a week. I liked that job real well. There wasn’t anything about it I didn’t like. It was a sit-down job, plenty of people. The people in New Jersey are much friendlier than the people here in Seattle. They didn’t stand on black or white. You all workin’ together. There are a lot of Italians in New Jersey. Italians and blacks get along pretty good there. I stayed there until nineteen sixty-eight. That’s when I got married and didn’t work for two years.
Next I did motel work—chambermaid. It was minimum wage, about a dollar forty an hour. Then I had domestic problems, left my husband, and came to Seattle. My brother was out here working where they make trucks. When I told him I was thinking about coming out here to live, he said, “Good, I hear they’re hiring women out here now.”
I said, “I’ve never driven a truck before.”
He said, “Then you should try it,” and sent for me.
I checked the place out when I first got here. I said, “If anybody else can do it, I can do it too. If you got men doing it, I can do it, just give me a chance.” They told me they didn’t have an opening, but according to my brother they did have an opening. Finally they let me take this physical exam and told me I had back problems. Course I never had back problems in my life. So when they told me that they couldn’t hire me, I said, “That’s okay, but I’m goin’ to my own private doctor tomorrow, and if he says there’s nothing wrong with my back, then I get the job.” The personnel man said it was okay. I left, went on home, and about five o’clock the phone rang, and it was the personnel manager.
He said, “Katie, we’re gonna overlook your problem. You come in tomorrow and go to work.” So that’s why I knew I didn’t have no back problem. They just wouldn’t hire a black woman. I got the job on May twenty-ninth, nineteen seventy-four.
When I first started working there, they gave me a hard time and wrote dirty words on the ladies-room walls about what they would like me to do for them—sex and all that. After awhile I just got tired of looking at it and I spoke to my supervisor, who finally got the walls cleaned off. And when I would walk up the aisles they would make wise cracks about what they would like to do. I just kept on walkin’ and pretended I didn’t hear ’em. It made me feel trampy. That’s because I was a black girl. I’m sure you’ve never experienced this before, but the white men think that they can take advantage of a black woman. They think that she’d be proud to be with a white man. That’s true. But I don’t want no white man. I love my own black people. That’s what I feel.
I guess I should have felt that there was gonna be some racial prejudice, but I didn’t. I thought they’d treat me the same, ’cause I was a woman tryin’ to feed a family, and I needed the job just like a man. I got a son to feed and I’m out here with no money. I was uncomfortable, I think mainly because I was the only black woman there at the time. They had one other woman there, but she was white.
I can’t really describe how I felt when I first walked in there. I was scared. At that time I never said much, but the more I live the more I learned I had to speak up to defend myself.
In the plant the smell is terrible. And the sounds—you have to wear ear protection. The sounds are awfully loud because there’s a lot of riveting and screwdrivers, especially in the cab shop. I don’t know how anybody could just walk through there without ear plugs. When I first started I was in sheet metal sub-assembly, where it’s very quiet. It was pleasant except for my lead man. He was a Southerner from North Carolina and he was very, very prejudiced. He made me have a lot of depression headaches. I never relaxed around him. He talked so much and you couldn’t trust him. He was always telling the supervisors something or other, whether it was true or not true. He always put you down. It was very uncomfortable. That’s why I transferred out.
Now I’m building doors for the superbox. When I get the work it’s just an inside panel and an outside panel. I put in insulation first and then I rivet the two panels together, put a hinge on, and put on the lock and air vents. We have a jig sit on the table for the hinges to fit down in. Then I use a rivet gun on them. Every day I do more than I should because they have people laid off and they won’t call ’em back. My supervisor has me go help them catch up in sleeper boxes so run over here, do this job, run back and do my own job. It’s too much. I can’t do it. Everybody told me to stop doing it, because the longer they see you can do it, they’ll never call them people back in. I was so tired at the end of the day. Yeah, I do more than I should, I really do. I don’t mind helping when they get behind, but sometimes, you know. . . .
The lead man, he’s supposed to be there to help. The lead man we have now is very helpful. The lead man we had to have before wasn’t like that. He was always telling me he was tired of babysitting. If I went to him for help, he said, “Niggers are more trouble in this place.”
My supervisor, he has been into it so many times with me ’cause I feel that he can be very discriminating. He has a paperwork job getting in the orders for the day or week. When he got ready for this job to be done, he went and asked one woman to do it for him. And I questioned him as to why one of the black girls couldn’t have done it as well as her. He said, “Well, I felt she could give me a good day’s work.”
And I said, “Do you feel like a black person couldn’t give you a good day’s work?”
He said, “Katie, I don’t want you to feel that way.”
I said, “Well, this is the way I feel. Why not let her do it for a week. Let this one do it for a week, let another one do it for a week, and then let me do it. This way we all can learn how to do paperwork. Besides, I understand to make journeyman you got to know how to do the paperwork, too.”
He said, “Yes, that’s true.”
Then I said, “Let us all do it.” And from that day to this day he still hasn’t let us do the paperwork even though he’d always tell me what a good job I do. Can’t nobody keep up with me on the doors. Still I don’t never get a chance to do nothin’ but make doors. I asked him once to let all of us learn to do different jobs, because one job can get boring at times. He won’t let us do that because he’s afraid that if we learn to do more than one job, we can make journeyman. That’s all it is. I’m a production worker right now. When I first started I was a helper. I was a helper for eighteen months before they made me a production worker. And the union got behind me in the end. That’s the only reason I made production worker. Most everybody else was a production worker in six months, three months, but not me. If I don’t get journeyman in the next three years, I won’t get it at all. I been ten years on it.
Most of the people I work with are white males and a black person never gets a chance that way. Take, for example, an incident that’s going on right now. There’s a man giving a three-day seminar out at the Holiday Inn. You don’t have to come in to work, you just leave home and go to the seminar for three days with pay. Every week twenty-seven people go to the seminar. Out of all those people they haven’t asked a black person to go. And it’s sad; we’re all out there workin’ together, payin’ our union dues just like the whites are except they haven’t asked a black to go. And whenever I bring up something like this, they say I’m trying to cause trouble. But it is not that I wanna cause trouble. It’s just that I wanna be treated equally. I want a fair chance just like the white folks do, male or female. I never caused a bit of trouble since I been there, but with this I’m gonna start a grievance tomorrow.
The racism is a continuous thing, maybe not with me but with some black person. Just when you think you got something settled, then something else pops up. It runs all the time. It never ceases. I think they have more of it there than anybody else. I really do. Let me tell you how that place has affected me. Because of the way it is, I had begun to drink quite a bit. When I drank I wouldn’t go to work because I knew I couldn’t do my job if I was drinking. There was a white man who missed the same amount of work as I did and for the same reason, but they called me into personnel and told me if I didn’t go to Cabrini for alcohol treatment I would lose my job. The white male, he didn’t have to go, but to save my job I had to go. Now that’s on my record.
And another thing I felt I was discriminated on was when I had domestic problems and filed for a divorce. When my husband got the divorce papers, he threw me out of the house and I didn’t have no place to stay. And I went to AYD, a division of United Way, for emergency help. I had been a member of AYD for four years, but when I went to them for help they told me it wasn’t an emergency. I had a broken jaw, a broken hand, and no place to stay, but it wasn’t an emergency. But when our lead man had a heart attack, they gave him assistance and he had a pile of money. If my situation wasn’t an emergency, I don’t know what one is. So I had this friend working there, and I was telling her about it; when I told her my problem she said, “Katie, you can stay with me tonight,” and I stayed with her for three nights, and then I went to the YWCA. But AYD never gave me a cent and I got out of it the next day.
You know sex, it does play a part, but not as big a part as racial, because a white woman can get much farther than a black woman. And here I’m a black and a woman and it’s hard. So I think sex is on one side and color’s on the other.
I wouldn’t say this job’s changed my home life as far as being tired. Yeah, I be tired, but I’d be tired anyway. It has made me cranky. And made me be short with my husband when I come home. When I get cranky, we don’t have no sex life and I think that’s what made the domestic problems that we had. ’Cause I would come home after a bad day, like today, and I didn’t know what I was gonna do. You know it really hurts, the way they discriminate against us.
Tell you the truth, my life is different because I pray every day that the Lord will take this feeling I have away from me. I have this hatred for the white male. Every night, every morning, I ask the Lord to take this hatred from me. This job has changed me so much. When I came here I didn’t feel this way towards white people, but I think it was because I wasn’t treated this way. It has changed me. If they would treat everybody equally, it might be a nice place to work, but I think they’ve got more suits against them than anybody I know. If they wasn’t so prejudiced I’d love working. As it is I wouldn’t tell nobody to work there.