Picture it: Murfreesboro (NC) 1982. A black woman and a diverse group of workers who were recently laid off from the Tylon Zipper plant (which had closed it’s doors for good), decided to open their own worker-owned plant. What that would have meant for them, was that employees could invest in their own business and all share in the decision-making processes.
Here’s an excerpt from an article written in The Journal of Southern Changes 1978-2003.
A few miles from the WOSCO plant in Windsor, North Carolina, a Talon zipper factory, located in Woodland, North Carolina, closed in February 1982, throwing over two hundred skilled workers into the depressed job market of Northampton County. Eight of these former employees are now trying to start a worker owned factory called United Zipper Company. At first, they approached Talon to discuss buying the closed plant or its equipment. Talon, fearing further competition, refused to talk. Rather than sell, company agents destroyed the zipper machinery and let it go for scrap.
According to one worker, Beulah Sharpe, the cost of building a plant and purchasing equipment will amount to $700,000. The city of Murfreesboro has applied for $325,000 from the North Carolina Small Cities Community Development Block Grant Program to be used for this purpose. The balance will come from other lending sources (remember this sentence). When the business begins, by late fall of 1982, there will be ten worker owners. Their plans project eventual growth to a workforce of thirty-seven.
“At Talon,” says Ms. Sharp(e), “we were never involved in making decisions. Now we have to learn how to make decisions for ourselves. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but we have learned from them.”
So, a few obstacles stood in their way. As stated above, the decision by the executives at Tylon to refuse to sell the old machines to the workers created a need for additional funding. The second blow was one that I hate to even speak about, and it did not make the article above. Now it is time to tell this part of the story.
One day, after crafting a plan B, the group of hopeful plant owners entered the Tarheel Bank and attempted to apply for a loan to supplement the funds needed to add to the monies acquired by the town of Murfreesboro to buy equipment to open the new plant. Beulah Sharpe handed the application to loan officer while the rest of the team looked on. The caucasian gentleman (We’ll call him Roy) barely touched the paperwork as if to avoid a chemical burn before he tossed it right back to her.
Perplexed, Beulah said, “But, you didn’t even look at…”
Before she could complete her sentence, Roy leaned back in his chair and uttered, “We don’t give loans to women and (n-word)s.”
That was my mother, sitting in that chair, totally chastened by that man’s racist, anti-feminist remarks. I would imagine that for a few sullen moments, she forgot that she was leading the way for others, both black and white, to overcome economic disaster for their families. She forgot all of the hard work she and the others put into the research and community partnerships to make this thing happen. In that moment, all she was aware of was that aside from all else, she was a negro woman and single parent in the south. Nothing more.
Beulah Sharpe went into the Tarheel Bank that day with three strikes already against her already: She was not white, she was not married, and she was not a man. That was reason enough for the group to be turned away, empty-handed and defeated. I’d imagine she cried two buckets of tears afterwards. Rest assured that my mother didn’t pity herself. I remember this very vividly: they were tears of pain, and anger. She was essentially powerless, and felt very separate and unequal.
A child cannot bear to see his or her mother in pain. If you’ve ever witnessed it, I bet you can say you were hurting too. I was. I am.
Beulah quickly regained her footing and she found another cause to fight for. A close friend and supporter, Frank
Cindy Arnold and Beulah Sharpe, 1984
Adams encouraged her to open a non-profit organization. In September of 1984, she and Cindy Arnold launched the Center for Women’s Economic Alternatives to teach financial literacy in the community. The Women’s Center is best known for their fight for justice on behalf of workers at the Perdue Farms Inc. in Lewiston, NC who had developed carpal tunnel syndrome due to poor working conditions.
My mother died less than a year later, and Cindy eventually left the area. Bernice “Liz” Sessoms led a team of hard-working women who essentially carried out Beulah’s dream. Due to a severe shortage in funding, the center shut down in 2002.
I have to give my mother credit. In spite of her experiences then, and years before, she always taught me NOT to see color. I was certainly aware that I had color, but that it should have no bearing on how I treat others as human beings.
Thanks to Cindy Arnold Humiston, Frank Adams, David Cecelski, and Katherine Charron for sharing this compelling story with me as it happened, and thank you more for NOT being color-blind!