August 5th, 2014

Black Workers Sue Memphis Cotton Gin for Racial Discrimination

In June 2014, after months of racial discrimination, harassment, and threats from a white supervisor, Untonio Harris and Marrio Mangrum, two African American workers at the Atkinson Cotton Warehouse, filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in June 2014. The supervisor of the Memphis, Tennessee cotton gin refused them permission to drink from a “whites only” water fountain, referred to them using racial slurs, and even threatened them with hanging.

The discrimination occurred daily. African American employees were called “monkeys” and told "you need to think like a white man." The supervisor would yell: “Hey, black boy, get over there and get my cotton.” Mr. Harris even recalls that the supervisor "pulled his pants down in front of us and told us to kiss his white tail."

Mr. Harris used his cell phone to record the racist comments. When Mr. Harris asked to use a microwave the supervisor told him he couldn’t, “because you are not white.” The supervisor, in reference to a water fountain said: “I need to put a sign here that says ‘white people only’.” When Mr. Harris asked what would happen if he drank from the fountain, the supervisor replied: “That’s when we hang you.”

The discrimination faced by the employees is a reminder of the not so distant legacy of the Jim Crow era. In the recording, the supervisor recalls the days of segregation favorably. “Back then, nobody thought anything about it. Now everybody is made to where to think it’s bad,” says the supervisor.

After the reports of discrimination became public, the owner of the warehouse claimed no knowledge of the abuse and stated that warehouse management outsourced to another company. The management company, Federal Compress, has since stated that the supervisor is no longer employed with them.

However, on August 5, 2014, Harris, Mangrum and a third employee named Vashone Ford filed a federal lawsuit against the warehouse owners, seeking anti-discrimination training for all employees and future monitoring of the business environment. All three men were fired in early 2014 after reporting the racist conditions to their supervisors.