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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 >>

Unions did not try to organize Hickory Springs because of its integrated staff

The workers at Hickory Springs furniture plant were not recruited for unions because they had an integrated staff and supervisor force. The unions were all-white. Hickory Springs integrated in the interest of keeping a large enough labor pool at relatively low wages. Underdown and other supervisors recruited black workers from South Carolina.

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

I've been reading a little bit about the furniture industry in the 40s in this area, and the way I understand it, in that post-war period and into the late `40s, early `50s there were a number of union drives in the area, and I was wondering did that affect Hickory Springs during that time? Do you remember?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
No, they never did try to unionize us [Laughter] because we were the first integrated company. During my stay here, we worked whites and blacks together.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
How did other businesses in the community react to that?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Well, they didn't like it much, but there wasn't a lot they could do about it. We had to have workers, and we recruited them where we could get them. We didn't pay the best salaries in town. At that particular time, the top wage was about thirty-five cents an hour.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
The top wage that Hickory Springs paid?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Now, we're talking about for production. We paid supervisors a fair wage, but not a high wage. I can see why this old one up here wanted to go in the café business and the taxi business and make him something. And all these people-.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
In the photograph?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Yes. If we were to go over these things, all these people came from somewhere else to Hickory Springs to work.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
From outside Hickory?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Outside Hickory, yes. Just about every one of them.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
And you said a number came from South Carolina, from where Joe and Myrtle Neal were from?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Yes, Blacksburg, South Carolina.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Where else did people come from?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Just out of the woods everywhere.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
What do you think brought them to Hickory Springs? Or did someone go out and recruit them?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
I made a couple trips down there myself.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
To South Carolina?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
To South Carolina to recruit some of them. But see now, Leggett and Platt had a plant down there, and they trained them. They were from up north. They didn't care whether it was white or black or anything else, and they trained these people. If you could get a good, trained worker for the same wage-and they didn't pay anything either. We paid about what they paid, or maybe a little more than they paid, and we could get them up here. But all their supervision personnel was white, every one of them.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Theirs or yours?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Theirs. Ours, half of ours were black.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
From the beginning?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
From the beginning. John Pike, he was the supervisor running all the coil springs. And we had one white boy that worked for John, and when I fired John, he quit. He was a good machine operator. He went to work for A.J. Horton at Southern Cushion. I believe that was the name of his place out there.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
I believe so.
PETE UNDERDOWN:
That was out on the Lenoir Highway, two streets down and to the left I believe would get you on it.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
I found a newspaper article that said that A.J. Horton ended up being sent off to jail for tax evasion or something along those lines.
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Yes, I think he did. He didn't stay long. He probably kept some people's withholdings too.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Is there more you'd like to say about this photograph?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
It kind of surprised me to see this. [Pause. Reads from photo caption.] "Hickory Springs hired black workers." We also tried to hire white workers. We tried to hire everybody we could get. Labor was a little short back in those days.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
When you were superintendent, do you remember any particular problems with blacks and whites working together?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
Well, just when I first came here, first came to Hickory Springs, we had that problem that they just wouldn't work together. And for instance, Mr. Stein, he wouldn't speak to John Pike over in the section over yonder. He'd probably be better off speaking to him. Mr. Stein lost his hand. He was a machinist when he first came with Hickory Springs. We made rocker springs, and he stuck his hand up under the die to pull something out. He didn't cut the thing off. Got his knee on the pedal that run the press down, and pressed his own arm off, his hand, about right there.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
When was this?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
This was before I came here. Parks told me when I came here, he says, "Now that man you can't fire. You can do whatever you want to with the rest of them, but that man you can't fire." He said, "He's given me a hand and everything." And you know, they wound up firing him about six months after I left. [laughs.] Pleas Lingle fired him.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
For what? Do you know?
PETE UNDERDOWN:
He wasn't the most cooperative person around. He knew a lot of things himself that he needed-. In fact he had a boy working for him that he taught everything he knew.