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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Brooks, October 2, 1974. Interview E-0058. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Leadership in the beginning stages of the food workers' strike

Brooks discusses leadership in the food workers' strikes and the strategies used when the strike first began. According to Brooks, the food workers worked largely as a group, but many were shy about speaking up. As a result, she and Mary Smith, another of the female workers who had worked for food services for years, served as de facto speakers for the group. After several failed attempts to negotiate with Mr. Prillaman, the workers decided to strike. With the help of Preston Dobbins, the workers decided to begin the strike on Sunday afternoon. Brooks describes how the workers arrived at work per usual, but when the dining hall was scheduled to open, they sat down and refused to work. Brooks attributes the success of this initial spark for the strike to group solidarity and student support.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Brooks, October 2, 1974. Interview E-0058. 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

Were there any problems, any dissension within the group itself, you know, maybe in regard to leadership, or any problems that you had internally?
MS. ELIZABETH BROOKS:
I don't quite understand you.
BEVERLY JONES:
Were there any problems among the group itself, in regard to leadership roles, you know, who should do this and who should not do that, any problems like that?
MS. ELIZABETH BROOKS:
No, we didn't have any problems because the fact that the most of them knew what was happening and they wanted somehing done about it. But when it came down to just speaking, they just were shy and wouldn't speak. So I for one have always been willing to speak up, and Mary Smith is the same way. So we just would sit down, all us would get together, and everyone would agree to, you know, whatever we had at hand, and we would say, "Well, who's going to present it to Mr. Prillaman," or "Who's going to present it to the University?" or however, and most of them would say, "Well it either has to be Mary Smith or Elizabeth Brooks, one or the other because they can talk the best," and this type of thing is where the reason we were more in the leadership position.
BEVERLY JONES:
Could you tell me, when did you decided together as a group, and when did you decided to strike? I know the strike was on that Sunday. Was it. . . what day did you get together and decide to talk about it, what plans had you made if you made any plans before Sunday came up to strike.
MS. ELIZABETH BROOKS:
Well, this may sound a little crazy, but we had, like I said, several meetings with Mr. Prillaman and we had talked about things that we wanted; we had at that time presented him with a list of grievance on paper and we hadn't had any results but we hand't said anything about a strike. We wasn't sure in what way to go about it. So on Friday, when he came upand demanded that I work the second counter and after he told me, in the way he told me, about cleaning up, when we all got ready to go, we went outside and kind of stood around in a little bunehhand we said, "We got to do something about this." So we found Preston before we left. And we told him that we had to do something, that we wanted to strike. But we did not know just in what way to do it. Because on a Sunday afternoon, that was Friday night and we had Saturdays off, on a Sunday afternoon we came in at four and we would be the only group in that building that was open on Sunday and we just didn't know how really to go about it. So Preston told us that, well, he says, "If you're going to do it, and going to get results, you gotta do it in a normal way. The best thing that I can see is to come in on Sunday and set up as if you're going to work, because if he knows that you're not going to work, then he's not going to open the doors anyway. Come in, set your counters up as if you're going to work, and leave the rest to the black students." He said "We'll get the publicity out, and at 4:00 when he opens that door, we'll have everything waiting." So we done this. We came in on the Sunday, and set our counters up, and everybody was standing there ready to start serving when he went and opened the doors. And when he opened the doors, the thing just teed off; we walked out from behind the counter and everybody just sat down.
BEVERLY JONES:
What about that Saturday? Did you ever have conversations with other foodworkers? With Preston on that Saturday because you were off that day?
MS. ELIZABETH BROOKS:
Not on that Saturday. But on that Sunday, Preston told us to come early, and we were scheduled to open at 4:00 and we always were there at 3:30, and so Preston asked us to come early so we could have a meeting with the black students. So we came in early, I guess something like 2:30. They had a place set up, I think it was in Manning Hall. We had a meeting with some of the students, and I think some of the white students also before we went into work. They had really got things planned out, because they had gotten to most of the students that we were going to strike at 4:00. Be at the Pine Room at 4:00, and I think that almost all the students on campus knew that we were planning on striking. And so they just then said, "Don't back down." They just kind of encouraged us to do it.
BEVERLY JONES:
What did the students do when they rushed in?
MS. ELIZABETH BROOKS:
When he opened the door at 4:00, it looked like there were about three or four hundred students outside. And they all came in, and they lined up around the counter and they took trays as they come in, and they just began to bang on the counter. Just stand there at a steady pace, just banging on the counter. And we had of course walked out and sat down. And Mr. White who was the supervisor at that time was the only manager, supervisor in the building and it almost frightened him to death. (laughs). So he turned around and he came back to where the group had sat down, the group had sat down together, we had a table, we all planned out where we were going to sit, and so we had all sat down around this table. So he came back down the hall there, and he looked at us and he said, "What on the world is going on," and so somebody said, "We are on strike." And he began, he says, "Mary Smith, Mary, come back here to the office, I want to talk to you." So Mary was like a mother to the group in the Pine Room, she was the oldest of the group in the Pine Room, and I'm almost sure she had been employed there longer than any of us. So the person was hired there, whoever the supervisor was, they always gave Mary the instructions to train them. So then once she would train us, if we ever needed any further information, we would just go to Mary for it. We didn't go to them for it, because Mary really had trained some of the supervisors and some of the managers. So they had this feeling, and they thought, I think, that maybe if they could talk to Mary, she maybe could come back and say, "We're going back to work," and we'd just go back to work. So he asked for her to come back to the office and so I told him - I didn't let Mary speak - I just spoke up and said, "You can't talk to Mary in the office, you'll have to talk to all of us." And so he just turned arond and walked back to the office. And he called in Mr. Prillaman who was the Head Director. And he has a real heavy voice, and I think that's one of the reasons employees were frightened by him. So he came in there and he yelled out, "Mary Smith!" He didn't come up to the table, he came only so far: "Mary Smith! I want to speak to you!" And so, I told him, "You can't speak to Mary Smith, you have to speak to the group." He said, "Mary," he called again, and so she told him, "Mr. Prillaman, we're a group now and so you'll have to talk to all of us." And so he turned around and he went back to the office and he called Branch from Raleigh. And it took Branch a while to get there, and in the meantime the students were talking, newspaper reporters were talking with us, and photographers were snapping pictures, and we were just pointing out everything that had been kept in for all the months. And so Branch finally came in and he just didn't know what to say. And he says, "Well, what do you all want?" We told him, we said, "We want a meeting." We have been asking for a meeting. We have had meetings with Mr. Prillaman and that didn't do any good, and so we asked for a meeting with him also. But we had never gotten an opportunity to speak with him. We also earlier had been to Raleigh and talked with his assistant, which at the time had told us, listened to our problems real carefully, and told us that he would be back with us by mail and let us know what they could do about it. And we hadn't heard anything from any of them since. So when he came in, wanting to know what did we want, we told him we wanted a meeting and we wanted them to know what was going on because we didn't really think the people in Raleigh knew what Prillaman was doing. And so he says, "Well, we'll have a meeting." So the seventeen foodworkers went into one of the rooms and we asked the students to stay on the other end, and so we sat there and talked with him and we made plans for a meeting the next day with Branch and Prillaman and some more of the higher officials out of Raleigh. And after then, we went, we left. And of course, the black students had a place in Manning Hall waiting. And we went over there. And they helped us get our list of grievances back together. And then we decided just who would present them and we kind of had some questions to ask too. So we got this together. And at the same time we had decided we would form a picket line because see, the Lenoir Hall -this was just the Pine Room group- and Lenoir Hall was one of the largest dining rooms. And the folk that worked in there was off on that Sunday, but they would be coming in on a Monday at 5:00 to open up. So the black students and there were lots of white students also, and we decided that we would start the picket line going the next morning at 5:00 in hopes to get to the workers before they got in to open up the Lenoir Hall.