by John Wylder

Story Summary

In the 1980’s, John was an IT executive in a large bank based in Atlanta, Georgia. The bank received pressure to greatly increase workforce diversity. John turned to an African American friend for help and the friend’s insight changed everything.

Discussion Questions

  1. The Jim Crow era of segregation describes a specific time and type of discrimination. How did this era come about and how did the rules affect people's lives?
  2. What was the official cause of the end of the Jim Crow era? What is the difference between De Jure (legal discrimination) and De Facto (custom or in practice) discrimination?
  3. What other events were happening around the U.S. and the world in 1964 that may have lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
  4. Do you think John’s and his company’s plan to diversify their staff was a good one? What else could they have done?

Resources

  • The movie “Green Book” 2018
  • The movie “Hidden Figures” 2017
  • Civil Rights Act 1964 - https://www.britannica.com/event/Civil-Rights-Act-United-States-1964
  • Biographical information on Maynard Jackson, former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia - https://www.britannica.com/biography/Maynard-Jackson

Themes

  • African American/Africans
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I’m John Wylder from Portland Oregon.

Forty years ago, back in the 1980s, I was working as a mid-level executive for a large bank in Atlanta, Georgia. This bank was old school and very conservative and catered to the top 1% of society. They resisted change. The bank had strict dress codes for the employees: the men had to wear their jackets full time and women had to follow this very strict dress code when they came to work.

In the meantime, this is the 1980s, Atlanta wanted to be the star of The New South, and changes were happening all around and soon the city would have its first black mayor since Reconstruction. The bank was reacting to the change and decided that they had to rapidly increase the diversity of the workforce.

Well, while I had started on the retail side of banking, I realized that I was a round peg and in a so square hole and I had moved into the I.T. department in the programming department where my career blossomed.

I wanted to help the bank with its diversity goals. So, we heavily recruited African American experienced I.T. executives and we couldn’t get any to come to work for us. We kept raising our offers. They still refused every offer.

And, about that time, I was part of a bicycle club in Atlanta and one of my best bike riding friends was a guy named Beau who is an I.T. professor at Atlanta University, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the city.

And Beau and I would talk bikes and careers and technology and so I invited him in to help me with my problem. And I promised if he came in, he’d get lunch at the executive dining room. So, on that day, I met Beau in the lobby of the dining room, and he looked every bit the college professor: tweed jacket, dark shirt with a contrasting bright tie.

He walked into the dining room. And it was a sea of black, grey and blue suits. Beau was the only black face in the room other than the tuxedo clad waiters standing around the fringe of the room. The most senior waiter seeing Beau came over and waited on our table. And Beau talked to him like they were old friends. And they just chatted it up and I was kind of stunned by this moment.

And, after lunch, I took Beau to my office and I told him again the problem and he said, “Stop right there. I need to walk around the building and check things out.”

I said, “Fine.”

And so, he left my office and about an hour later he came back and he said these fateful words, “I see your problem, John. There are no black people here.”

Well I got kind of frustrated and angry at him and said, “I already knew that.”

And he said, “No, you don’t.”

And he put on his best professorial face and he gave me an education. And he said he had met only two black people in his tour of the building, a janitor and a secretary. And he talked to them extensively and they said there were no executives of color in the company. He said there were no career paths for them. There were no mentorships for them. They were very, very frustrated.

And I said, “Beau, you’re right. I had no idea how bad things were. What can we do?”

And then he posed a riddle and he said, “You’re not going to be able to hire any black people till you have black people in this company.”

And, then, we started to conspire. It was self-serving on both our parts. He proposed we hire some of his students as interns and then work part-time during the school year and full-time in the summers. And that way we would seed the workforce with African American employees and have a better chance at hiring experienced people.

Well, it seemed like a great idea. So, I wrote it up and then I ran into my first worry, my boss. My boss was from the Deep South. He’s from Brunswick, Georgia. My wife was from Brunswick and had told me that, at the end of the Jim Crow era and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the city had filled in the swimming pool with dirt rather than de-segregate it. And I was worried about this proposal with the guy from that experience. And he shocked me. And he read it and he said, “I like this but… you’re gonna have to invite the three predominantly white colleges in on the program and expand your proposal.”

And he saw my face was crestfallen because it was going to dilute the idea. And he said, “It’s the only way, John, we’ll get this past management.”

So, I scrambled and got a team together of our training coordinator and Beau called his peers at the other schools. And we got everybody to buy in. And I presented it to the HR department. And I had what I thought was a very generous salary. It was almost triple the prevailing minimum wage. And the HR people said, “That’s not good enough. You need to offer these people the hourly equivalent of the job they’re going to fulfill. And they’re gonna get health care benefits. They’re gonna get credits for education and training in tuition. They’re gonna get pension credits. And if they work full-time – all of that becomes full-time and they can accrue it if we hire them after college.”

It was a “Wow!” And, so, we went forward with the idea. And Beau had a lead on everybody else and he got us four of his best students in there. These kids were amazing. They worked more than the minimum hours. They were really, really talented. And, oh my God, suddenly we had the most diverse workforce of anywhere in the company.

When the first guy got ready for graduation, I put together an offer package for him. The offer was beyond anything we’d ever offered a college student. Because of his experience, we could offer him a second grade, elevated job offer; all the accrual of his benefits, all the pension things would come together. It was a real package.

And when I presented it to the student, he was oddly glum, and he looked up at me and he said he was worried about this day for some weeks. He said that because of this job with us, he had done job interviews on campus and IBM looked at his resume and was offering him double what we could offer.

And he said that he just couldn’t refuse. And, after I got over being stunned, I laughed and smiled at him and said, “You think IBM would hire me?”

And he laughed and we shook hands. And we threw a hell of a graduation party for him on his way off to his new life.

The program was very successful and went on for a number of years. But right when it kicked off, Beau was true to his word when he had promised to pay me back by taking me to lunch. And we agreed that I would go to Paschal’s Restaurant, a legendary entry in The Green Book.

The Green Book during the segregation era would track places in the south where African Americans could get accommodations and meals when everywhere else was segregated. And Paschal’s was not only a place for a meal, it was the home of the power structure of the city of Atlanta. Future mayors and future representatives all would pass through the portal of Paschal’s.

And I said, “Beau, I’ll meet you there.”

And he says, “No, you won’t. I’m gonna pick you up and drive you there, John.”

And so, on that day, he picked me up and we drove to the restaurant. And, as we walked in the door, everyone turned and looked at me and the whole room got quiet. And I looked around and realized there was perhaps only one other white person in the room.

Beau wasn’t through teaching me lessons. And he paused for a moment for me to get over the shock and then he put his arm on my shoulder and he announced to everyone, “It’s okay. This is my friend, John.”

And he walked me in and introduced me to all the luminaries. You know, turnabout is fair play.