Company president dismantles racial barriers
Iverson recalls breaking down some racial barriers at a steel joist plant in the South, allowing white and black families to mingle at a company event, merging the white and black Christmas parties, and eliminating segregated rest rooms. Segregation, to Iverson, "was just a ridiculous issue."
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Kenneth Iverson, June 11, 1999. Interview I-0083. 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: In reading some of the various materials on the company in your book, I was absolutely dumbstruck to see that in 1965 you knocked the walls out between the segregated locker rooms.
KI: Oh, yeah.
JM: How did you manage--?
KI: It was earlier than that wasn't it?
JM: Oh, I beg your pardon.
KI: '64, yeah.
JM: In fact make an important point. I misspoke about the date. It's earlier than that and that's very important because the Civil Rights Act hadn't passed yet. First of all, how do you take the measure of the situation -- the stark racial divide in the South -- and then decide that as a manager you’re going to put yourself in the middle of that and manage the aftermath? How did that whole story unfold?
KI: It started to unfold probably because we put an addition on the plant. We were having a weekend in which everybody was going to go through. I had not really been that conscious that there was even any conflict until the head of public relations at that time for the company came in and said, “We're all set. We have the carpet ready and the lines going down and the tent to give them all ice cream cones and cokes after they've all been through. I've only got one question from you.” He said, “Mr. Iverson, when are we going to take the niggers through?” That's the way he said it. I never thought of it that way. It took me up short. I said, “Alfred, I don't know. I'll get back to you.” I didn't even know it was an issue. To me it was completely alien. I got the plant manager on the phone and I said, “What's this about taking the Negroes through at a different time?” He said, “Oh, that's the old foolishness. We can take them all through together.” So we did. We had the blacks and whites and everybody going through with their kids and their families. It was a great success. I never even had been involved in any racial problems before. That was my first experience with them. When I went there they also had a white Christmas Party and a black Christmas Party. They were separated. As the head, as the Chief Executive Officer of that, I had to go to both. I did. I think it was for two years and then we just cut it out all together. We never had any problems -- racial problems -- to speak of.
I remember in Florence -- when I moved there -- they had a white's high school and they had a black high school. I was invited to speak at the black high school to the students. The people who were around me -- some of the whites -- said, “Oh wait until you see it. It's new and they've torn it all apart and it's such a mess you'll never believe it.” So I drove out there with some expectations that were inaccurate. It was as new and as clean and as well kept and as swept as any place you've ever been in. I was very, very impressed with them. I gave my talk and that was that.
JM: Were there any African-Americans in Downers Grove when you were a child?
KI: I think there were a couple.
JM: May have been a couple at Purdue when you were on the campus.
KI: Oh yeah. Sure.
JM: And you'd had your military experience.
JM: But certainly in your family vacations on the Montana prairie you wouldn't have had--?
KI: You wouldn't see many [African Americans], No.
JM: Maybe it was a non-issue, but it seems quite an extraordinary thing, from my perspective today, that you were willing to grapple with and engage that issue the way you did so early on. I would've thought that someone in your managerial position would've been worried about the ramifications for the company?
KI: I'm sure there were people in managerial positions that may have been, but as far as I'm concerned, it was just a ridiculous issue to have separate restrooms for black and white. We just eliminated [them]. I'm sure there were people who didn't like what I did. There never had any problem with it.
JM: So in ensuing years when you would locate plants in rural areas of the South, it wasn't really much of an issue?
JM: That's very interesting.
KI: We always felt the rural areas were great untapped labor resources.