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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gordon Berkstresser III, April 29, 1986. Interview H-0263. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Gender and race distinctions in the textile industry

Berkstresser describes some of the gender and racial divisions in the textile industry's history. Women often held jobs that required manual dexterity; black men worked cleaning or in dangerous jobs. While management has remained nearly all white, some black workers have moved into more desirable jobs since World War II as, Berkstresser argues, racial myths lost their power. He condemns the industry, however, for continuing to limit the participation of women and African Americans.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gordon Berkstresser III, April 29, 1986. Interview H-0263. 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

PATRICIA RAUB:
So you do see a real change in the type of composition of the labor force?
GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
No question, no question. Even in my lifetime—most people don't like to talk about it—prior to WWII, you had almost 100% white male management—unfortunately, you still have about 100% white male management—but, in the work force, you had a majority of young white male, with a good cadre of white female—in the mills.
PATRICIA RAUB:
There was a difference, though, in the types of jobs that males and females would have?
GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
Oh, yes, but females would have a good many of the jobs that required certain manual skills and dexterity. Frequently in the things—yarn preparation, where being able to pick up a loose end of a thread and tie it, you know, in a rapid sort of thing. But, at any rate, during WWII, when we were asked—my family—we were asked, to produce more goods for both war effort and civilian effort out of facilities where it was harder to get good raw material, where it was hard to get replacement parts for machines and so forth, we were asked to produce all of that not only with the difficulty in getting raw materials and replacement parts, but with a different labor force. Because your best—traditionally thought of as best labor force—the young white male—he was off in the Army, getting shot at. And up until that time, blacks were really confined to yard work, sweepers, or dangerous jobs like working in a picker room that exploded occasionally, and that sort of thing. And since WWII, you've had a large part of your white labor force replaced by black, and that's only happened since WWII. All of a sudden all these blacks got "terribly smart"—they had been "very dumb" up to then—and I don't know what it was, but there was this—they all got educated during WWII.
PATRICIA RAUB:
Do you put it back that far? I'm wondering because what I've read so far has suggested that it was only in the 60s that blacks really started moving into—
GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
Well, it started during WWII because that's when the mills were forced to use blacks and forced to accept the fact that the myth that blacks could not handle mechanical things started to be exploded. Because when they started using them they found that—By God!—they could. It took another maybe even twenty years for people to really move through on that but that's really, I feel, where this dispelling of the myth began occur.
PATRICIA RAUB:
Would you say that was also somewhat a result of white workers then moving into the newer industries that started to move into the South in the postwar period?
GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
Yes. Part of that, of course, occurred. But the real reason that blacks were excluded from the mills were these old myths and at least those were the rationalizations. Certainly, the white people didn't want them as part of the labor force within the mill—yard work and so forth was O.K.—but they didn't want the social implications of their working together. And the way to keep them out was to say that they weren't suitable, because that was easier to say than we don't want you. And I'm a Southerner, and I say that this was what we were going through in those years. I grew up in it. When I went to school in Roanoke Rapids, all the schools were white that I went to. There were no blacks. When I went off to prep school in New England was when I first saw black people in school. And all of a sudden I realized that, you know, this—what I had been used to in the South—was not the only way, and other people began to realize that. So this was part of this industrial change.
PATRICIA RAUB:
What has happened now with blacks in the textile force now? Are they getting higher positions, or not?
GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
They had been… the problem is that it's only been a couple of years since the Affirmative Action stuff has been deemphasized from Washington. I don't think we're really ready yet to see what the impact of that. I think that up until a couple of years ago that there was some progress being made by blacks at least into middle-management—not enough, but some. And I put it, both blacks and females, because if you study the industry—the fiber, and textile, and even the apparel industry—the number of blacks and females that have risen to have really responsible management positions is abismally slow. It's obviously not based on those people's abilities. There is no question. But we're certainly trying to do things about that in a school like ours here. We have about 30% female enrollment. One of my advisees who is graduating this year has a straight 4.0 average. She is sharp. I think she's going to Chapel Hill for her MBA, as a matter of fact. I know she's going somewhere. I don't know whether she's going there or Wharton—she's got several offers. When I was a student here at school, we had, I think, two co-eds. Philadelphia Textile School had more because they were granting degrees in textile design—that was o.k. for women to go into—but not manufacturing. But now we have girls who leave here and go and are supervisors on the third shift in a Cannon Mill in Kannapolis. And—by God—they do it, they do it well. Some of the older people in the industry don't quite accept it yet, but they will. Its happening.
PATRICIA RAUB:
What's your percentage of black students?
GORDON BERKSTRESSER, III:
Blacks is about 5% in this school, and from what I've been able to see the blacks' placement in the industry is about the same as the whites'. The white kids who have better than a, say, 2.5 academic average seem to have no problems. The ones who have lower than that have problems getting jobs. Eventually we get them placed. About the same with the black kids. So from that standpoint, the initial job bit seems to be fine. There isn't the demand and the scurry to hurry up to hire blacks that there was a few years ago when there was more pressure on EEO—Affirmative Action, excuse me—but the—what I want to do is—I have to wait a couple of years—is see what happens to them. Do they hit a plateau and sit there? This, I think, is what's tended to happen to the females. They go into the industry, they rise up a couple of notches, hit a plateau, the first available plateau that management can say, Well, you're doing real good—for a woman. You can go through all of the annual reports of all of the people in the industry and look for the chairman of the board, president, executive vice-president, managing directors, etc., etc., etc., at that level—and you'll find less than one-half of one percent women. And yet this school and schools like this have been turning out very qualified females for the last couple of decades. You shouldn't get me started on that. I get upset. If this industry—in the United States—feels that it's going to move into the 21st century and be able to compete in a global market by excluding over 50% of its available talent base—which are the females and blacks—it's foolish. You're not successful when you exclude those inputs. It's absolutely asinine. Sorry, but that's something we have to change.