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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Samuel James (S. J.) and Leonia Farrar, May 28, 2003. Interview K-0652. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Crossing racial boundaries with solid workmanship

Samuel remembers a job driving a truck for the Southern Builing Supply in Raleigh, North Carolina. His white boss treated him well, but at least one white coworker and one white customer did not. He eventually inherited his coworker's job building homes and turned the customer, who had refused to do business with him, into a loyal patron.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Samuel James (S. J.) and Leonia Farrar, May 28, 2003. Interview K-0652. 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 started work in Raleigh off the farm working at Southern Building Supply as a truck driver. I went from that as a truck driver as a cabinet installer/helper. The owner, I don't know why, but the owner and the manager just took a liking to me and they would let me do things that whites weren't supposed to do at that time. The boss-man, we was on a job one day and the boy that I was helping, he was the front man because he built the cabinets and all I was was a helper for him. I had gotten to the point where I knew as much about installation as he did and would work harder at it. We was in there putting in a big home of cabinets and I was in there at work. He was in there sitting in the den there with the land owner drinking coffee and the boss man drove up outside, walked in the kitchen. I was in there working and this boy was sitting in there with the homeowner drinking coffee and not doing any work. He came in, and that's the way he was, he just walked in and made a circle around in the kitchen. He asked me, he said, "Where's Tommy?" I said, "He's next door." He pushed the door open, peeked in and didn't say anything, came on back. When we got back to the office he called both of us in his office. He said, "Tommy, did SJ tell you that I was on the job over there today?" That boy looked right straight at me. I said, "No, I didn't tell him. "He said, "Well, I was over there and you was in there drinking coffee, not at work." The boss man was strict about work. He didn't care whether you were black or white, he wanted you to work. So that day he said, "From this day on"… and the boy was prejudiced too. He said, "From this day on I'm putting SJ on the table beside of you. I want you to teach him everything you know about this." The next day or two, I didn't have any tools or anything, no hammers or, and I needed a hammer. I reached over to pick up the boy's hammer and he said, "No sir. Don't you touch my… if I let you use my hammer, the next thing I know you'll have my job." And one year after that I had his job. Of course, I didn't take it from him, it was because it was just destined for me from then on I learned everything, everything about building and cabinet work. I'd stand in the house. I wired the first house because I'd go out on the job and I'd see the electrician wiring houses, I'd watch him, see what they was doing and how they was doing it. I wired the first house we built here, I wired it. The way I learned how to put in a foundation, going out on the job hauling building materials to jobs and I'd watch how they was digging up the foundations and how wide it was supposed to be, the depths it was supposed to be. I learned all of that from just being watchful, learned all of that. all the carpenter work. We had a contractor, he was Rebbish too. I'd been in the shop there maybe a year, year and a half and I noticed that he would never come my way in the shop. So one day he had to come down through the area where I was working and he said to my boss man, "What's SJ doing around that table? A black man's not supposed to do that work. So what's SJ doing on that table?" Mr. Cummings, Rock Cummings was the manager, he said, "He's learning the trade, that's what he's doing." He said, "As long as you keep that nigger in this shop with a hammer in his hand I'll never buy another piece of building materials from you."
This was a customer?
That was a customer. Two years later that same customer wouldn't let anybody do his work but me. If I called a name, one of his sons lives in Cary now. No, I think he died a few years ago, Honey. You might know him so I won't call his name. Oh, we've had some ups and downs, let me tell you.