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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Burt, February 6, 1979. Interview H-0194-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Finding work and witnessing workplace accidents

Illutrating the face-to-face workings of the early twentieth-century job market and some workplace dangers, Burt describes how he got his first steady job. A friend brought him to what he calls the Bull Factory and presented him to his boss, who immediately put Burt to work packaging cigarettes. Burt soon moved up to loading and unloading an elevator, which became the site of a catastrophic accident he narrowly avoided. Frightened, he left to become a bricklayer, but managed to witness a second accident, which he describes here.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Burt, February 6, 1979. Interview H-0194-2. 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

GLENN HINSON:
How did you end up doin' any work at the Bull factory? Is there any reason you worked at that factory?
THOMAS BURT:
There was an openin' there. You got to get on a job where there's an openin' for you. A man quit or lay out or somethin' and they let him go, if they see you and you be lucky enough, you could get that man's job. So that's just the way I got on. Paul Horton got me on down there. He'd been workin' there for several years. I knowed him. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
THOMAS BURT:
Me and him run together a whole lot out here in the country before I went to Durham. I got with him one Saturday night over there in North Durham. He asked me where I been workin'. I told him I'd just been pickin' up three or four hours work a day around there helpin' somebody with a yard or somethin' like that. I said, "I ain't got no regular job." He said, "Boy, I'll tell you somethin'. I believe I can get you on down there where I work." I said, "All right, if you can, get me on." He said, "I'll let you know somethin' in a day or two. I'll see what I can do." A few days after that, he come by the house one night. The factory weren't far from where I was roomin'. He said, "Boy, I believe I got you a job. The man said to come in and he'd try you out. You ever worked in a factory?" "No, man, I ain't never worked in no factory." He said, "The man said to tell you to come in. He believed he could use you if you could catch on to the work." I went on down there to the gate when he come in. The gate didn't open till exactly 7:00. The whistle blow, and that gate was opened. It stayed open exactly ten minutes. If you weren't in when that ten minutes wore out, that gate closed automatically. I was standin' there when Paul walked up. Me and him stood there when the whistle blowed five minutes before seven. That gives folks time to get in there by 7:00. It blowed five minutes before seven and it blowed again exactly seven. It blowed the next time—five more minutes, if you weren't in there, you didn't get in. So I went on in there. Paul went and found the bossman. He come up and ask me, "Boy, are you the man lookin' a job?" I told him, "Yes sir. If you have one open, I'd love to get the job." He say, "Come on. I believe I can put you to work." Me and him went over yonder the factory, went on down the steps, and down in another room. He told the man down there, "Here's a man I brought you. You been sayin' you want another man." He said, "Boy, have you ever worked in factory." I told him, "No. It's the first time I even been in." He said, "Well, maybe you can catch on to it." They put me down in the shippin' room. That's where I started off at packin' up cigarettes. Them cigarettes come down, some of them long as that chair. They had a machine. Them cigarettes go up there and that knife cut them. That thing raised up and clip them. They'd go on down and some folks puttin' them in the packs. They'd go up yonder, turn and come back, and men was puttin' labels on them. My job was to have a place long as across this house—little shelves—I had to put them cigarettes where they belonged, different packs. They'd pack them up, and a man standin' there cartonin' them up, so many to a carton. I caught onto that right quick; that was easy. They put me to sweepin'. I told the man I'd have to quit that cause I had a cold. This Paul, he run the elevator for three stories, four with the basement. He put me up there with Paul. He say, "You work here with Paul." We had to carry different stuff from the first floor to the second one on up. Sometimes we had to go up to the top floor. One Friday morning, I felt funny. I felt curious all night that night. I couldn't half sleep. I told Miss Kizzie, "I ain't half slept last night. I'm feelin' kind of funny. I coughin'." She said, "Yes, I noticed you coughed all night. You better do something for that cough." I said, "I'll tell you what I'm goin' do, I'm goin' to quit that factory." She said, "Are you still sweepin'?" I said, "No. They put me on the elevator." She said, "That's dangerous ain't it?" I said, "I don't know. Paul been runnin' it for four or five years. Ain't nothin' ever happened to him." Went on down there that mornin', went up to the third floor three times that mornin' carryin' stuff up there. The next time I had to go up, I had somethin' for the second floor and the third floor. Got up there to the second floor and took that off, packed it on the truck. He said, "Thomas, tell you what you do. You truck this on back yonder and put it where it belongs and I'll go on up to the third floor and unload this and put it where it belong. We'll kill two birds with one shot." So I took the truck and went all round there to where it supposed to go. After a while, I heard that thing break a-loose, and I heard him hollerin', "Help me! Help me!" That thing come down right on down in the basement. I had to go down them winding steps to go down. Everybody were runnin' down there. I got down there and they had him wrapped up. I don't believe there was a bone in the boy that weren't broken. The elevator broke a-loose and fell. I didn't think about myself for an hour or more. I said, "Ain't that somethin'. I could have been on there with him, and we both would have been dead." It just come to me like that. I sit there and got so scared, I didn't know what to do. I made it to that Saturday. I walked up there that Saturday. I punched that clock Friday night and punched it Saturday morning and worked through dinner. I got my little pay and I walked out there and I ain't been back no more since, cause that's when I went to the brickyard and started workin'. It tore him all to pieces. He just broke all to pieces. He's just as limp, just like jelly. Went to pick the boy up and they had to roll him over in a oil cloth to pick him up. Tore that elevator all to pieces. Me and him had been a-ridin' that thing, laughin' and goin' on, talkin' like we was out on the grounds. I don't know what in the world happened to that thing that mornin' comin' apart. Nobody did never know what happened. He couldn't tell what happened, cause he was tore all to pieces. I ain't never did figure it out why it could fall. It was just time for it to do that, I guess.
GLENN HINSON:
You were right smart lucky.
THOMAS BURT:
Yes sir. If I hadn't got off at the second floor, I'd been on there. I'd gone on up to the top with him like I been doin'. I don't know why he speak. He said, "Thomas, you carry this on yonder and unload it while I go up and take this off up yonder up on the second floor." I said, "All right." I went on round there, and just about time I got about half of that stuff off of that truck, I heard that thing when it started. Whoom! It scared me so bad. I run down the step; I seed it. It wasn't closed in like the elevators is now. It was just a open place. I seed that thing pass and it was just like a bullet goin' down. He was hollerin', "Help me! Help me!" I heard him say it twice before it hit down there. "Help me!" he said, "Help me!" He couldn't get off it the way it was goin'. Lordy, Lord, I hate that thing so bad, I didn't know what in the world to do. I went on out there to the brickyard and seed another man get killed. We had a scaffold where we load these things and push them. The scaffold didn't go right straight up; it went kind of curved until you got up there where you dump that mud over in that hopper. I was goin' on up there, three boys in front of me. Goin' along up there, the front boy pushin' that thing. I don't know what happened. When I looked, all I seed was his heels. He turned that thing up sideways—they had a lever on the side—pulled that lever up, take one hand and turn the body over. I don't know what happened to the boy. I looked and seed his heels fly up in the air, and he went over in that hopper with all that mud. It tore him all to pieces. That was somethin' in this world. Up there switchin' and goin' on, if he'd been knowin' his business like he ought to done, he wouldn't have went over in there. That thing like a steam shovel; it reached over there and dig in the mud—had to dig it up. That thing had a little scoop on it half full, then it'd dump it over in them trucks where we had to push. It wasn't hard to push that cause of the slant goin' up there; it rode easy. I don't know what in the world happened to the boy. Carelessness! That's all it was. Time they could get round there and cut the engine down, that boy was tore all to pieces. His brother come runnin' up. It was Jim Jones. His brother come runnin' up there like a fool, had to catch him. He gonna jump over there to get him and couldn't even see him. The thing went over and over just like that. He couldn't even see him; he was all tangled up and messed up in that mud, and he gonna jump in there to get him. They had to hold him; he just had a fit. You could hear him, I reckon, a half a mile, hollerin' and cryin'. That wasn't worth five cents; the boy was gone. How was he goin' jump in over there and get him?