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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Race was not an issue in the textile industry

Smith recounts that the textile industry integrated without difficulty because black and white southerners, having grown up together, "dealt with people individually rather than on a race basis." He does not see attracting African American management as an issue because the industry has enough trouble attracting anyone at all.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: You mentioned, in discussing the labor situation, the relatively substantial increase in workplace diversity with Spanish speakers [and] other relatively new arrivals from other countries. One thing that I want to point your attention to for a minute: What was your sense of how well the industry accomplished the transition from a largely all- white workforce to a racially-integrated workforce when African Americans really began to first enter the textile industries after the early '60s? SS: I never saw a problem with it. I never saw or heard of any kind of uproar or disagreement with it. You have to remember, if you were born and raised in the south, black and white grew up raised side by side. No, they maybe didn't go to school together or maybe they didn't shop together, but by golly you were neighbors. You had as many black friends as a child as you probably had white friends, unless you lived in some isolated community or you were in the upper crust or whatever. Middle income and on down, you all grew up together. You dealt with people individually rather than on a race basis. There's an old saying that southerners dealt with blacks as individuals; northerners dealt with them on a race basis, but never as individuals. There's some truth in that. In many ways, when the walls began to fall in the workplace, it wasn't that different because we'd worked in the fields together. You've got to remember that a lot of southern textile people, front-line production people would work their textile jobs just because they knew they could go in at five o'clock in the morning and still get off at two and then go work their fields from two until sundown in the summer. So, they still worked with blacks in the fields. It was just a transferring of what was going in the field to putting it in the workplace. JM: So, the transition was fairly smoothly accomplished? SS: Certainly. From my perspective, far more easily than in a lot of other workplaces in other geographic areas. JM: Do you happen to encounter in textiles generally many African Americans moving into management positions say across the last two decades? Is that a trend that's in evidence much -- and women, too? I'd be interested in your perspective on women as managers. SS: It's an area--. Attracting managers is of concern to all of us in textiles, period. Forget gender and race. Just attracting a young person, let's say in college, to major in textiles, or [attracting] graduating [seniors] out of college to come to work in textiles is a challenge because they have a stereotypical look at textiles. The entire industry has done an awful lot to try to say, “Hey. We're not that way. Come look at us. Come look at the high tech manufacturing we're doing. Come look at the manufacturing environment that we have in place today. We can compete with anybody. We're as high tech as IBM is.” But, there's that stereotypical look, idea. What kid's going to go home and say, “Mommy and Dad, I'm going to go and work in textiles.” “Oh no. You can't be serious.” So, we want any management skilled people. So, male, female, black, white, Hispanic, that's not the issue. The issue is attracting talent. It has been a limit of being able to attract talent. That is part of the interest [reason] as to why there is somewhat a limit in the number of black managers and the number of female managers. There was not [a] racially or gender-based [discriminatory practice]. It was the inability to attract people period. [That is] why, in many cases, if you've got a family owned business, it just went on to the family member.