CONSTRUCTION

By Storyteller Jim May

 

Story Summary:

Storyteller Jim May relates his days working his way through school on a union construction crew; as well as the unions roll in softening the effects of classism and racism.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Construction

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever worked in a menial job with someone without an education but found that they had much wisdom and sound advice based on their natural intelligence, intuition and life experience?
  2. Have you ever worked in a job where you were kept on but someone was let go in spite of the fact that they were as good a worker as you? Was there some kind of prejudice involved around race, gender, sexual orientation, class or age?
  3. What is your feeling about labor unions? What was their role in ushering in the 40-hour week, getting paid for overtime and ending child labor among other worker benefits?

Resources:

  • Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel
  • Working Class in America by Eugene Debs
  • History of the U.S. Labor Movement: Labor Movement in the United States: Volume Two by Phillip Foner
  • Trail Guide For A Crooked Heart by Jim May (p. 12)

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I was about 16 years old, somewhere in 1963. I had my first construction job, the first time, really, out of my little town, Spring Grove that I had grown up in. This was the first time I had the chance to work side by side with African-American workers and learned from them and learned a little bit about work, what the world of heavy construction was to them, being middle-aged and black versus the experience of a 17-year-old high school kid.

Well, it was the summer of 1963, and I got a job during high school summer vacation. It felt like my first real job, although the summer before that I had worked on a thoroughbred horse farm, and it was a real job, we worked six days a week, 11 hours a day sometimes. But it was farm work, the kind of work I grew up with; the working climate was a little more informal than my job during my junior year in high school, which was working for a union excavation company, concrete and excavation work. And this was the best company to work for. This company almost single handedly raised a good deal of farm boys out of the working class to the middle class during those years. Not many companies, that I knew of at least, were paying union wages at that time. Now my brother had gotten a job working for this company, and my brother was sort of a construction genius as it turns out, we were already beginning to realize that. He dropped out of high school but really could run machines, really understood everything about a construction project.

He got me the job. So, I was 16, 17, I didn’t know anything about construction, barely knew, which end of the shovel was up. I was the kind of guy the old guys were talking about, telling jokes about, sending the kid to the trailer to get a left-handed hammer. You know, I probably would have gone a couple of times before I figured out what they were doing to me. So what do you do with a dumb, fairly strong kid? Well, you give him the hardest, dumbest job on the job, and on this job we were pouring thousands of feet of curbing, cement curbing. And back in those days you had to take a steel form, by hand, drive it into the ground with sledge hammers and steel form pins. They poured the concrete between the curbing forms and then it all had to dry for several hours at least to set up, and then someone had to go and pull all those pins, and you did it basically with a crow bar and a chain. And you leaned over, set the crow bar against the steel form—you didn’t want to get into the concrete, because you’d notch it or make a dent in it if it was a little bit green. Sometimes the job was moving so fast that you had to pull the pins when the concrete was little bit green, and then you would just pull. You would bend over and take the crow bar and just lift with your legs and your back and pull; oh, some of them were close to an inch in diameter, those pins. And this was in Zion, Illinois, so it was Lake County, which was notorious for the clay-packed soil.

So, it was hard work, and no overtime; you got union wages, but someone would put the crow bar on the curb before you started in the morning. You got out of your car at exactly 8’o clock. You got back into your car at exactly 4.30, no overtime. Someone else would put the tools out. As the foreman would say, “All I wanna see from you guys is arse and elbows. You know, I wanna see you guys bending over, pulling pins. You’re not paid to think, you’re paid to work.” So that naturally was the job that the kids got, high school kids, college kids, “dumb kids” they called us and worse. So that was the low job on the crew.  Now, so basically that was my job and couple of other high school kids and a couple of younger college kids and two middle-aged black guys who knew a lot about construction, much more than we did, but they did not have any connections with the company. They were union, sent out “from the hall,” as they said, and they were right there with us doing the lowest, hardest job on the crew. And though they must have felt some humiliation to be in that position, they were always very kind to me at least and everyone as I remember. They gave us good working man hints on how to survive in heat and that kind of hard work. I remember I would look at my watch sometimes and would be suffering from that heat, pulling those pins, and they would say, “Oh, Jim, don’t look at your watch, don’t look at your watch, that will slow the time down. Never look at your watch!”

So, I just I had this sense of privilege that I was only sixteen and somehow had gotten into that position where these men had been working construction all their lives and hadn’t gotten any higher in the company than that particular skill, which required brawn and that was all. On the positive side, if it hadn’t been for the union they wouldn’t have been there at all, out in the “Ru-burbs” way out in the country. Where the company was based there wouldn’t have been any black men living, or very unlikely to have that position at all. So, the union was slowly changing things, looking back on it. But I also had this sense that there was an injustice. The work slowed down, and we got laid off. All the young kids got laid off, and these black guys got laid off. And I remember having a sense that maybe I wouldn’t be able to go to college, because my father had died that year before and there was no money and this was how I was going to go to college. And I remembered being called back and being very relieved but I didn’t see, didn’t hear those two black guys were called back and I asked about it but never received any information.

I was telling someone about this, and they said, “Did you ever bring this up? Or talk about the inequity?” Someone asked if I brought it up with the foreman. My first thought was I was afraid to even talk about the weather with the foreman. The foreman, you know, wore these state-trooper, mirrored-glasses and ran around screaming at people. He had a big bumper sticker on his car that said, “I don’t have ulcers. I give them.” He was known as “Firing Dick” I think was his name. But he eventually kind of took me under his wing and kept me working for several summers, helped me get through college. He was under that same pressure. When the owner would come, he would take his helmet off and put under his arm like a good cadet and take his glasses off and scurry right over to the boss’ big car. Everybody was under this kind of intense pressure. I think most of the workers that I worked with had grown up working class or were raised poor or the only alternative was farming, and farming was dying at that point in the late sixties, mid-sixties and seventies. And this was a union job, and you couldn’t afford to take care of yourself; if you were asked to do a job that wasn’t safe, you couldn’t afford to say, “I think I’d better wait till somebody gets here with some safety glasses or a helmet.” You just dug in and you just did the job, because it felt like survival. So everybody was under that system, and the owner of the company, there were all kinds of legendary stories about him starting out with nothing but a wheel barrow and cleaning the ashes out of wood burning stores and along Front Street in McHenry. So, the system was pretty locked in, but the union was the wedge that began to change things, I think that’s an important piece of it as well.

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JOHN HENRY

By Storyteller Jim May

 

Story Summary:

 This is a true story set in rural McHenry County, Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s about John Henry Higler, a man who claimed to be former slave who assimilated into an all white farm community.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: John-Henry

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you imagine living and working in a community where there was no one who shared your background and “race”?
  2. Do you think this account of John Henry being a beloved member of a white farming community in the early part of the 20th century is hopeful or simply a story that whites told to assuage their guilt about white privilege?
  3. Have you ever gone to a graveyard and imagined the stories behind the people buried there?

 

Resources:

 

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity

Full Transcript:

I grew up in Spring Grove, IL, a little German Catholic farming community about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. And my family has been there for about five generations; they came probably in the 1840’s.

Growing up, I had heard off and on the story of, it seemed to me perhaps like a legend at that time, of a black man buried somewhere in Spring Grove in one of the cemeteries. And there was talk that he had been held in slavery in some time in his life in Tennessee. I probably forgot about that story for years and years. But when I got interested in family history and storytelling, I started digging around a little bit and came across the very person to come across, an 80-year-old man, Tommy Madden, who had been one of my father’s best friends. And Tommy and another acquaintance of his, Jim Holderman, had known this gentleman from Tennessee.

They all referred to him as John Henry, which of course is ironic: John Henry is the mythical hero of black American folklore who won the race with the steam hammer and maybe that’s why John Henry took his name. I’m not sure, but he had come out to Spring Grove, a little side-tracked town, come off of Chicago apparently.

In fact, the story was that he had left Tennessee, either been emancipated at the end of the Civil War perhaps or had escaped, no one knew for sure. But he had come out to Chicago, which makes some sense. But he had told everybody that he met in Spring Grove that he found things too “sportin’” in Chicago.

So he was looking for a quieter place, and he found the right place: in Spring Grove there wasn’t much sporting going on. Nearly 200 people and four taverns and two churches, that was about it. But he worked for farmers there; he was a hired hand, a live-in hired hand. And he found one family, the Stevens family, that particularly took an interest in him, and he lived with that family and worked with that family for years and years.

In fact, he worked often in the farm house helping Mrs. Stevens, and the story was Mrs. Stevens said she just couldn’t part with John Henry, that she would send her husband down the road before she let go of John Henry. He was so helpful to her, he loved children. There was a story that he would sit around the big dining room table, big farm family, and he always liked sitting next to the baby. He liked feeding the baby. And he would read the newspaper; he couldn’t read, but he would hold the newspaper and make up the story. One of the boys, the youngest, I was told by his brother, just wouldn’t go to sleep, wouldn’t go to bed, until John Henry helped him take his boots and shoes off and got him ready for bed.

But there was more of the story, of course. Things couldn’t have been easy for John living out there, the only black man for miles around. I remember this one story where they had a threshing and there were some day laborers hired from out of community to work. There was extra work to do when the grains had to be threshed, and a couple of these fellows were up high on a straw stack and they saw John below, maybe working on the machine, maybe oiling the machine, doing some kind of work beneath them, and they got the oil can and they squirted some oil on him as a joke.

I remember Tommy Madden saying, “John didn’t complain, he never wanted to bother anybody.” Of course, that was the internalized reality of being a slave: if you bothered someone, that might mean your life, your family might be sold down the river. But when the boss, the man who owned the farm found out about it, as they gathered around this big, incredible spread of food for the threshing crews, when the boss Mr. Stevens found out, he fired the two day laborers on the spot after what they had done because they humiliated John.

And old Tommy, who was 88-years-old, told me that story. I remember he was sitting on his couch there on a February afternoon and he had bib overalls on, and he was telling me that story about these two fellows that humiliated John being fired and he kind of raised his fist. I remember that he had a kind of gun metal blue nail on his fist and I remember him punctuating his word and saying, “That was the end of those fellows for what they did to John.”

“He felt a sense of justice there. I think perhaps the uniqueness of having someone who had been once held in slavery, the uniqueness of having a black man in the community, there was a certain deference paid to John. But I remember also hearing my relatives say that he would dance with the girls at church functions, and some of them wouldn’t like that.

He, even with the Stevens family whom he loved and they loved him, they would ask him to come into the front room after dinner in the kitchen, and, no, he would always sit alone in his rocking chair in the kitchen, not in the front room. Things must have been lonely for him, but the story of course was fascinating, and when I heard Tommy that day, that February day when I got this story from Tommy, he said, “I know where he is buried.”

This was new information to me. I heard he was buried somewhere in the county line, but I never met anyone who knew where he was buried. Tommy said he’s in the old cemetery on Wilmot Road. Down along the fence line, over in the north east corner, you’ll find John’s grave.

On that February day I said goodbye to Tommy and left Wilmot, Wisconsin and drove along Wilmot Road looking for the cemetery and found it of course. I knew where the cemetery was. But I walked back and forth, back and forth amongst those grave stones that late February afternoon and did not find the John Henry grave.

And thinking about his life and even so far away from anything that would have been a familiar experience for him of being a helping hand in slavery in Tennessee, far away from family, there was no family that anyone knew of, and I thought, finally, now, his grave is gone too. Even the memory was gone, kind of punctuating the loneliness of his life or that aspect of that life.

And I literally had given up looking for the tombstone and was heading back to my car, I almost stumbled on it. You know, how you give up looking for something and you find it? There at my feet was a very proper granite stone. I knew he had died in the county home and, so, I had already concluded that perhaps there was no marker at all. Perhaps a wooden cross that had rotted or nothing to mark his grave, but there it was: a very proper granite stone that said John Henry Higgler, and he died in 1947, the same year that my grandpa died.

The best of my memory was 1947, there on the stone. There was no birthday, because there was often no birthdays recorded for slaves, but there was a very proper stone and in front of that stone was a bright red, fairly new plastic flower.

And it occurred to me that those people who lived up there in that prairie, the English prairie, north of Spring Grove, had found a way to transcend race and culture and geography, and the monument to that connection that was made across all those challenges was that red rose, that red plastic rose that was there on that cold February day.

And perhaps that’s kind of a metaphor for our country, our culture. Racism is solid still, frozen like the ground was that February day. But here and there we see these patches of red, these signs of life and flowering. Thinking about it, now with the last presidential election, we have kind of a garland in a snow bank, you know we got Obama in the white house. That’s why they call it the White House, I guess. I don’t know. So, it’s still there in the old cemetery, John Henry, if you want to go, if you want to go check out the grave.