A Sharecropper's Daughter in the 21st Century

A Sharecropper's Daughter in the 21st Century

Beverly KeownIn honor of Martin Luther King Day, this week’s story reminds us that despite the progress we’ve made, we have more work to do.

A sharecropper’s daughter

Beverly Keown was born on a plantation in Seaton, Arkansas, the fourth of eight children. Her father was a sharecropper. Her mother was a domestic servant in the farmer’s home. Along with her siblings, Beverly spent her summers chopping cotton.

Growing up in a Southern state, Beverly suffered indignities that would shock any thinking person today. She entered restaurants through the back door, not the front. She drank from water fountains labeled “Colored.” She wasn’t allowed at her white friends’ birthday parties or sleepovers. And she didn’t dare go to the only movie theater in town. But in that place and time, it was the norm. So it was all Beverly knew.

During her ninth-grade year, her all-black school closed and integrated with the white school. Four years later, she graduated in the top twenty percent of her class, and got a job as a machine operator at a shirt manufacturer. She planned to go to college, but her family needed money to pay bills, so she kept putting it off. After a time, she was promoted to a secretarial job in the office. That made her one of only two African American employees in a salaried position. In the machine shop, she had been one of many. So for the first time in her life, she spent her entire day surrounded by people that were different from her. It was obvious she was the different one—sometimes painfully obvious. She recalls,

The other administrators laughed at me . . . and talked about me as if I had no feelings. They made fun of the way I talked and the way I looked. I was constantly aware of the color of my skin, and the texture of my hair. I thought to myself, ‘If only I was white, I would be treated better.’”

When Beverly quit three years later, her mother pleaded with her to “go beg them to give you your job back.” Beverly refused.

Her next employer prided itself on their “family environment” and how well they treated their employees. But she never felt at home there. She was talked down to and treated poorly. When the company downsized, her role was eliminated, and she was offered a similar role in another department. But the offer was withdrawn when someone realized there was a white woman who wanted the job Beverly had been promised. Despite being less qualified, the white woman was promoted into the role, and Beverly was demoted into the white woman’s old job. But with three children at home, she and her husband needed the money. Besides, there was no reason to believe moving to another company would prove any better. This is just how things seemed to be. So she stayed.

Twenty-five years after joining the company, her husband got a new job and they needed to move. Fortunately, her employer had another plant in the town where she was moving, so she was able to get a transfer. She was offered the job of payroll administrator for the 131 production operators at the site. But before she left, her boss called her into his office to give her some advice. “Where you’re going, you’ll have to have thick skin.” Beverly didn’t know what he meant. So he explained,

You’ll be the only black person in that whole plant. People might say things to you, or you might be targeted at times.” Beverly still wasn’t sure what that meant, or how it would be different that what she’d experienced for the past twenty-five years. But she went anyway.

She quickly found out what he meant. On her first day, her boss was outraged when he found out that as a 25-year employee, she earned five weeks of vacation a year. He yelled, “I don’t even get that much vacation, and I’m your boss!” Each time she would take a day off, he made snide remarks and complained. And he constantly questioned her work. She said, “I felt like I always had to prove to him that I was good enough.”

Now, manually processing 131 payroll checks every week, she was bound to make a mistake at some point. When it finally happened, as Beverly describes it, “you’d think the whole world was coming to an end.” Her boss stormed into her office and slammed the door behind him. “What is wrong with you!” he shouted. His tirade continued as she sat in stunned silence. It was only a $100 mistake, and could be fixed in a matter of minutes. So she couldn’t understand why he was so upset. “Do you hear me talking to you? I said what is wrong with you!”

Beverly ran to the plant manager’s office for safety, with her boss on her heals. She explained the situation, but he was no help. “You guys go work this out by yourselves.” That’s when she realized she was in this all by herself. After two years of similar treatment, she filed a lawsuit with the EEOC.

The reaction at the plant was unfortunate. The regional manager came down from New Jersey and told Beverly, her boss, and the rest of the department that he did not approve of what was going on. Then—in a statement obviously directed at Beverly—he reminded everyone who the boss in the department was, and said, “What he says, goes. If anyone doesn’t like it, they can leave.” A few days later, one of her coworkers thought it necessary to tell Beverly that several employees at the site were members of the KKK. Whether true or not, it was enough to frighten her.

Fortunately for Beverly, the company filed for bankruptcy a few months later, and spared her the long legal battle. She was offered a severance package in return for an agreement to drop the lawsuit, which she accepted. After 27 years of dedicated service, Beverly Keown was unemployed.

The Lesson

Sounds like a typical story out of the 1950s, right? Sure. Except this didn’t happen in the 1950s. Or the 60s. Or even the 70s. And it isn’t from the 80s or 90s either. The year of the payroll incident, the EEOC lawsuit, and the KKK threat, was 2002, less than 14 years ago.

Yes, there has been an enormous improvement in the diversity and inclusiveness of American businesses in the past fifty years. And Beverly went on to find other jobs in more hospitable places. But as evidenced by her experience, that progress is not universal, nor is it complete. It would be easy for younger managers today to lack an understanding of and sympathy for this challenge. Many have never seen it first-hand, at least not to the degree I just described. That’s why stories like Beverly’s need to be shared.

Philosopher and poet George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Get to know the history of the people you work with. You’ll be shocked at how many Beverly stories you’ll find.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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