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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Riley, February 1, 1994. Interview K-0106. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Segregated facilities at White's and Riley's ascension to a leadership position

White's had segregated facilities for its white and black workers, Riley remembers. He may have been the company's first African American supervisor, a position he earned with hard work. His coworkers did not seem to resent his position, he thinks, partly because of the influence of one of his superiors.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Riley, February 1, 1994. Interview K-0106. 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

What kinds of jobs did people do? Were jobs segregated according to white and black?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
Well, when I went to White's everything was segregated.
CHRIS STEWART:
In '62, I imagine so.
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
Yes, you had a different bathroom, a different drinking fountain.
CHRIS STEWART:
Were they labeled?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
Coloreds, sure they were labeled. A lot of prejudices simply because there were people there who were used to being there with all of one color and here come people of another color.
CHRIS STEWART:
When did black people start getting jobs?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
Well, to be honest with you, I really don't know when there were the first blacks, but I believe as far as White's was concerned I was the first black supervisor they had. That tells you a little something about it. They had been in business since 1881. You may have to check the record on that, but I think I'm right.
CHRIS STEWART:
This is very interesting. First of all, was it difficult for you to get the supervisor job? Were there resentments to your getting the job?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
I think, to be honest with you, that White's saw something coming. You know, you just don't stay the same all the time. There are changes coming down the line. You either adjust or you have to answer a lot of questions as to why. They were smart people so I think they saw it. I tried to do them a real good job and I had pride in myself. They didn't give me anything. They opened up the door and I got in myself. I worked hard there with them and they were fair with me, I have no problem with that.
CHRIS STEWART:
What about the other employees, the workers?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
Now, some of the workers were in the same position when I went there as they were when I left. It had nothing to do with color. In the furniture business there are just very few key jobs available. In other words, if you run a machine and that machine machines our furniture then that machine is going to machine our furniture today, tomorrow, a year from now, ten years from now because this is what it is designed for to machine furniture. So if you are running that machine there's nowhere for you to go. That's a lot of the problem in the furniture industry there's just nowhere for the people to go.
CHRIS STEWART:
So you think that you were in a good position because you were in jobs that actually gave you the opportunity to get into supervisory?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
I went there as a young man and I was aggressive. My work record along with some other things got me in that position. I really do. I worked my fanny off. There's nothing wrong with that. I think they were looking for good, solid people. They had others there, you know, but…
CHRIS STEWART:
Did other white employees resent your getting a supervisor job?
ROBERT RILEY, SR.:
There again, I think, our superintendent was a strong, powerful man that I think I could bring you and say, "Mr. Smith, we've got to do certain things. This is the way it's going to go." In other words, he was strong enough to say, "Look, we're going to make this change and hope you like it, but if you don't like it you have to adjust to it and work with it here because this is the way we are going to do certain things." I think that he was such a strong and devoted man that he made it a lot easier for me.