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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Sidney Leneer Pete Underdown, June 18, 2000. Interview I-0091. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Segregation persists in the Hickory Springs plant until after the 1951 fire

The Hickory Springs furniture plant was segregated by the types of jobs white and black workers would do. White workers refused to work in the coiling process for fear of having a black supervisor, and the white workers generally worked in a building separate from the black workers. The parts of the company were consolidated after the 1951 fire, though, and the company broke local tradition by hiring more black workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Sidney Leneer Pete Underdown, June 18, 2000. Interview I-0091. 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

They'd just started in that bedframe business a short time before the fire.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Really? I didn't know that. So they actually started making them on Highland Avenue?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
I think they had. I don't know whether they was making them in Hickory. See, they had a big old three-story building. It wasn't the best thing for manufacturing anything, but we moved the whole mattress spring section up there, except for the coils. We made the coils down there, but we moved them up there one time on account of-. Moved them up there to this big building, moved the machines and everything into the big building on account of the white people wouldn't work for black people, especially if black people was in charge. And Joe Neal was in charge of that thing. You couldn't get a white person to work in there to save your neck, so we moved that up there and put up more new machines down here. All it took was a table and a coil machine that made a little bitty coil that went through the wires and it held springs together. You just took your table and set your coils up along there and ran that helical is what they call it, ran that helical, straight helical down all the way from side to side and then you throw them off of there and you had to trim them, take a pair of pliers and trim them. In fact, I've still got a pair of their pliers we're talking about. I found them the other day when I was looking through some stuff, and they're unusual pliers. They were made particularly for that, and it took me about fifteen minutes to remember what those pliers were for. I'll have to return those someday. [Laughter.]
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
I won't tell. So Joe Neal was in charge of the spring plant.
PETE UNDERDOWN:
No, he was in charge of the mattress part, just that one section of the spring plant. See, there was the Marshall unit section and there was a mattress section, and all that. This happened right before I came to work for them, or when I came down here. I moved the whole thing back together, told them they could work together or they didn't have to. We had about five or six white women that stayed with us after Joe came back to the main plant. But we ran those two plants for a while. It wasn't any [unclear] production, so we put them back together.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
So what got moved?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Just the mattress coiling section, where they put the coils together to make the inner springs for the mattress. That got moved uptown here, to the plant we had up here. That was before the fire ever happened, but they moved the bedrails to Oglethorpe during that time. And sometime later it was moved back down here to Hickory Springs.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
What you just said about black workers and white workers reminded me. I went to the Hickory Public Library last time I was here, and a woman there showed me this photograph and she said a black woman came in several years ago and brought her this photograph. And this is what she said when she brought it in, was that after the Second World War, black soldiers returning were having trouble finding work, and Hickory Springs was the first Hickory company to hire black workers and that there was at one time an all-black crew at Hickory Springs. And she says this is what this photograph is of. Now does that seem correct to you?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
That's correct. I would say that at this particular time I was just talking about, when they moved those things up there, we couldn't get enough blacks to coil. We were expanding, and we couldn't get enough blacks to make these mattress units. And the white people just refused to work with the black people. And this might seem strange to you, because this is before your time, but it actually happened, and DuPille was the man that moved the black ones up in this other building we had up there. And we made mattresses, but we had to buy an extra truck just to haul them back and forth. We had to take them down and pack them and everything, put them in crates. See you would take twenty-five of those things and mash them down to where they were about that high.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
About six inches high.
PETE UNDERDOWN:
So the coils would be mashed down there, and you had to have a special press to do it in. If you didn't, you was lost, and then you had to bind them real well and make the outside wood frame wide enough so that if you had any springs sticking out anywhere that they wouldn't catch anything. The wood would catch everywhere and wouldn't bend anything up or anything. So they actually did that.