Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Moore, August 17, 2006. Interview U-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racial and gender discrimination for African American workers at the VA hospital in Birmingham

Moore discusses the various types of discrimination she witnessed as an African American woman working at the VA hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Moore started her career at the VA hospital as a laboratory technician in 1971 and worked there for thirty years. Focusing primarily on work conditions in the 1970s into the early 1980s, Moore explains that there were very few African Americans working at the hospital when she was hired. In addition, she explains the limits African Americans faced in job opportunities at the hospital, despite the fact that a higher level of education was required for them. She also notes a decisive pay gap between white and black workers and discusses how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began to pave the way for more equitable conditions at work.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Moore, August 17, 2006. Interview U-0193. 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

SARAH THUESEN:
When you started there in '71 you must have been part of a relatively small number of black employees then?
MARY MOORE:
Small.
SARAH THUESEN:
Yeah. What was it like working in a mostly white work place at that time? That wasn't so long after the '60s.
MARY MOORE:
I tell you during that time one thing that's—. We were treated pretty well in the work place because the average white would come and say, "You are not like the other blacks." "Why are we not like the other blacks?" "Because you got employed." "Well, there are some other ones that like to be employed, too." "You are college educated." The sad thing about it, I had to be college educated in order to get my job in the laboratory. Four years at Tuskegee, got a BS degree in Pre-Med, math and science major. The average white that was working in the lab, high school diploma. Some relative knew somebody and they brought them in and trained them. Once they got—. Some did have degrees. It turned out most of us with degrees would have to continue to train those that's been there for years before we even got there. Another thing that stood out at that time that Medical Technology, as far as females was concerned, was a position for white women whose husbands were in medical school. They would understand the process better. That was one of the problems that you had to face, that this is a position for white females whose husbands are in medical school or white males who are thinking about becoming doctors. Prior to medical technology doing all the lab work, your doctors did it. Medical doctors, your interns, your residents worked in the laboratory. Dental students worked in the laboratory. Like when I did my internship, that's all I saw. When I got to the hospital and realized they were the ones who had to perform the test before the discipline matured. We were treated pretty well. We were put on that midnight shift and the evening shift so no one would see us. When the majority white patients came into the hospital to have lab work or if they had to see a nurse, they saw white.
SARAH THUESEN:
Did you work the night shift for how many years?
MARY MOORE:
I worked the nightshift for so long. I was on nightshift almost twelve years. Little by little, during that twelve year cycle, they started putting more and more blacks on dayshift. The thing they told me when I went to work there was that you know the people that work evening and midnight shift, they have to work all the holidays. All the holidays? I'm coming out of college, all the holidays? I don't get any time off. Their philosophy lasted until the union matured enough that you just can't make these people work all the holidays. In some cases that meant that if on the holidays you'd have no patients coming into clinic, I might have to come in and work midnight and not get off until four o'clock the next day. I worked the dayshift because the whites stay at home enjoying Christmas or Thanksgiving or Fourth of July and you work. We might end up doing two shifts. Things changed through the union efforts. They got it to the point, first of all more of us was able to work dayshift then. Little by little, the challenge through, not only union now, but EEOC. You had the equal opportunity act that required them when they started posting managerial positions that you open the doors up for blacks to apply for those positions, too. We had a lot of EEOC complaints. One of my major ones, because at one point in time I was a union steward and the union representative to sit on the EEO committee. During that time we realized that the hospital was paying black nurses a different salary than they were paying white nurses.
SARAH THUESEN:
About what year would that have been?
MARY MOORE:
That was like the late '70s, the early '80s. Then what ended up happening, we started looking more and more at the EEO records that the hospital was sending into Washington. The question that I had to ask on those records then was it had down there that we had blacks in administration and nursing service. I started going around asking the nurses. Can you identify the black nurse that is also an administrator? Nobody could find them. I think that was one of the major turnovers in the VA Hospital. Through the EEOC and union efforts they had to eventually start promoting black nurses to administrative roles. Originally started by making them supervisors, naturally on the nightshift. It eventually got to dayshift. Whereas the head nurse or chief of nursing service might have been white or some other minority other than black, they would have a black assistant and numerous black nurses that would fall under. Then the next phase that we had to fight was that most of the black administrators were females. Then we had to fight to get males, the male nurses. Because a lot of our nurses, male, were nurses in the military.
SARAH THUESEN:
Was there some reason that you think management was more inclined to hire black women than black men?
MARY MOORE:
They had to hire most of the black men because they were military. Then surprisingly enough, many of our black female nurses were military. I think it's always a safety net to say it's better to put a black female in that position because if I'm a white male or white female I feel less threatened if I've got a black female in that administrative position. She stands less of a chance to challenge me if I say something that's not quite right, that female might take it and say, "I can deal with it." Whereas that black male might say, "No, that's not right" and challenge. I think it just was a safety net.