Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban SettingShow Featured Items
Migration North after World War II
From Folklife Center News 17, No. 3 (Summer 1995)
ISSN 0149-6840 Catalog Card No. 77-649628
By Susan Levitas
According to Louis McDowell — preacher, distributor of free food to those in need, and owner of McDowell's Barber Shop, on River Street — Paterson was "itself" between the 1930s and the 1950s. Then, it was "a beautiful little city," one that welcomed his family fresh from their farm in Mississippi. With his older sister leading the charge, they came every year, two at a time for four years, until all seven brothers and sisters were settled and working. In those halcyon days, McDowell remembers everything being "nice" — the streets, the factories, and "even the police."
Although some African Americans in Paterson are second- or third-generation residents, many migrated north during the post-World War II period of great economic growth. In sharp contrast to the current climate, jobs were plentiful. At that time, African-American settlement was concentrated in the center of the city, east and west, and to the north, with many blacks living harmoniously in mixed neighborhoods with Italian, Polish, Dutch, and Jewish residents.
Easter Benson, owner of E & A Soul Food Restaurant, on Straight Street, grew up in South Carolina. There, when she was young, she worked alongside her mother picking cotton, stripping corn, cooking, cleaning, and quilting. She wanted a job outside the home, but none were to be had nearby. In 1954 she moved to Paterson, a place she had heard about through friends who had already made the journey north. Once she arrived in Paterson, she soon found work and a good place to live.
Living off the land was a formative experience for Southern migrants, many of whom were contributing workers in household economies based around family farms. Youthful responsibilities prepared them for a life of hard work. For example, Easter Benson parlayed her early experience with cooking in quantity for her large farm family and neighbors into a successful soul-food business in Paterson.
On Labor Day, 1942, George and Martha Jiggetts came to the city together and immediately got jobs. Martha had a cousin in Paterson and George, who had been coming north to work in Baltimore and Newark factories, wanted to escape the racial tyranny back home in Virginia.
One of George Jiggetts's experiences in Virginia provides an example. Upon hearing that his father's tobacco harvest received a lower price at the auction than white farmers' harvests, merely because he was black, young George removed the leaves from the buying floor and took them to a town where bidders did not know the origin of his tobacco. This lesson and others he learned in Virginia shaped his work style in Paterson. He quit menial jobs with no future for blacks (and insisted that his wife follow suit), and eventually established his own business, one built on a foundation of hard work and respect for others.
The Jiggettses, now serving a third generation of taxi riders, recall older customers, unaware that the cab company's name had changed from Jiggetts to Nationwide, refusing to get into a cab that did not bear their name. Their daughter, Bobby Wash, who has worked in the business all her life, once had to drive to the house of a customer to convince her to get into a cab without the family name on it.
Building A Life of Opportunity in Paterson
As young adults, African-American workers found opportunities as laborers in factories, small businesses, and private homes throughout the city. Easter Benson came to Paterson on a Sunday, and by Monday was working at Spotless Laundry. After seven years, she went to work at a coat factory, where she pressed seams and linings. For the next twenty years, she worked at different coat factories and laundry facilities, until she launched an enterprise that led to the founding of E & A Soul Food Restaurant.
George Jiggetts mopped floors at Wright Aeronautical, a job relegated to blacks no matter how qualified, until civil rights laws forced open the higher-paying technical positions.
Lenny Jones (a counter worker at Federal Supply hardware store) worked the brine machine at Wellworth's pickle factory for two years until he concluded that smelling like a pickle was hindering his ability to get dates. He turned to work in wire mills, where he spent years learning about the production of insulating wire "as fine as your hair," and learning everything he could about running and repairing wire-making machines in order to make himself indispensable to his bosses. He also worked for a while as a turret-drill operator at a machine shop that fabricated parts for the Alaska pipeline. Louis McDowell spent many years working in the grinding department of a Paterson chemical factory that processed mercury.
Factory jobs were readily available to these Patersonians, but opportunities for advancement were not. While some, such as Edgar Ramsey (the son of a coal miner who became a Xerox executive and, later, established the Sweet Potato Pie Company), were able to parlay a college education into good professional jobs, many others began as laborers and were not able to advance because of discriminatory hiring practices. For example, despite his seniority and vast knowledge of the machines and manufacturing operations, Lenny Jones could not move up at the wire mill. Describing his treatment, he said:
After fourteen years at the wire plant, they brought in a man and told me to break him in as foreman. And I said, "After it took me all these years, you want me to train him to tell me what to do?" I decided to keep my knowledge with me. If they weren't going to drain my knowledge to control me, that would be different. It's like showing the enemy how he can catch you.
Building a life of work in Paterson was a struggle, and many African-American workers lost jobs when the factories and mills shut down. However, a significant number of residents moved from the labor force into business ownership, carried on family business traditions, or became entrepreneurs, filling niches at the center and margins of African-American life.
McDowell's Barber Shop
As one of the few businesses African Americans could own in the South, barber shops have long played a central role in black communities. The barber, a public figure with professional skills for personal service, is often a highly respected individual with a repertoire of standard and up-to-the-minute hairstyles that express a community's prevailing tonsorial aesthetics. The barber shop, with its informal atmosphere and one-room openness, is both grooming parlor and unofficial community meeting place.
There are several black-owned barber shops in Paterson, every one operated by persons (mostly men, but a few women) who are well known in African-American circles. In the Bunker Hill section of north-central Paterson, none is better known or more respected than Rev. Louis McDowell, proprietor of McDowell's Barber Shop, at 400 River Street.
On March 31, 1963, McDowell gave a haircut to the first customer in his new barber shop on River Street, but he had been barbering since 1958. After thirteen years of work at a chemical factory, and with seven children to feed, he was looking for a second job. He chose barbering, remembering his brother and father cutting hair for neighbors in their Mississippi home.
Every day after work, for a year and a half, he worked as a barber's apprentice in the shop of his niece's husband, before deciding to study for his barbering certificate and set up shop on his own. At first he operated part-time, opening for business at 4:30 P.M., after the end of his shift at the factory. His barbering business boomed, he hired another barber to operate the business during the day, and in 1983 he retired from the factory and became a full-time barber.
McDowell's visibility and reputation in the community, as both a barber and a preacher (he was once the pastor of his own church), have made his shop a social center in the neighborhood. In recent years, it has also become important as a distribution point for free food to needy neighbors, further underscoring the significance of barber shops in African-American culture. McDowell sees community service, religious expression, and barbering as interrelated in his business. He says people look to him for spiritual guidance, often while getting their hair cut.
E & A Soul Food Restaurant
At Easter Benson's E & A Soul Food Restaurant, at the corner of Governor and Straight Streets, in the shadow of the Erie Railroad overpass, soul food, as she describes it, is homemade and highly- seasoned. It includes such items as biscuits, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, fresh vegetables (pinto and lima beans, field peas, cabbage, collard greens, string beans, candied yams), barbecued spare ribs, pork chops, sausage and peppers, stewed chicken, fried chicken, barbecued chicken, baked chicken, oxtail, hog's-head cheese, and much more. The term "soul food" refers to African-American foods emanating from the South, but with roots in African culinary traditions. It is a thriving cuisine in Paterson, with at least three restaurants serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hundreds of residents every day.
Easter Benson had no thoughts of running a restaurant when, in the 1970s, she opened a candy store across from her house at Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. It was a modest shop without a name, almost an extension of her own home. Like Reverend McDowell, she was already employed full-time at another job, and the candy store's hours of operation revolved around her work schedule. Therefore, it was open a couple of hours before work each morning and after work until ten at night.
After a year, her husband installed a stove and a refrigerator in the store, and she started cooking for her family, tying her place of business even more closely to her household. Soon, in response to passersby and regular customers who asked if they could buy plates of food, she began selling fried chicken, collard greens, rice, and biscuits. A visit by an official with the board of health, who said she would have to begin keeping books, prompted her to find a new space suitable for the expansion of her burgeoning restaurant business.
In 1986, E & A Soul Food Restaurant opened and changed Benson's life. Ever since, she has operated on four hours of sleep a night, with almost every waking hour devoted to the business. Her day begins at 3:30 A.M., when she leaves her house and drives to the Railroad Avenue farmers' market to purchase a day's supply of fresh vegetables. She is the only woman there at that time of day.
Once back at the restaurant, she unloads her purchases, and then begins to make the morning biscuits — following a recipe she has been making "by feel" since she was a child — while two cooks prepare other breakfast staples. The restaurant opens at 5:30 A.M. Throughout the day, Benson supervises the kitchen; peels potatoes; cuts collards, cabbage, beans and more; goes out to pick up meat and poultry; plans the next day's menu; and chats with her customers.
In a city with few African-American women who are business owners, Easter Benson has turned a traditionally female skill into a successful enterprise. Like McDowell's BarberShop, her restaurant serves more than one function: it sells food (its primary function), provides a setting for socializing, and conserves an important tradition. The E & A Soul Food Restaurant is a place workers come to for coffee and conversation on their way to work, and a home-away-from-home for regulars, some of whom eat more than one meal a day there. It is also a place where African-American food traditions are perpetuated and shared within the community.
Bragg Funeral Home
In Carnie Bragg Jr.'s high school yearbook, his simple aspiration is inscribed: "To be a mortician." Bragg, the second-generation director of the most prominent black-owned funeral home in Paterson, grew-up in the family business, which was located a floor below the family dwelling. His father, a former New York City garbage collector, started the business in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1937, and moved it to Paterson in 1945.
Located near the intersection of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Hamilton Street, the business was an immediate success, filling a need within local African-American life. As Bragg explained, his funeral home maintains traditions surrounding death that cater to the black community, including burials, wakes, home visits, access to the body for make-up and hair styling, and other personal services.
Like barbers, black funeral home directors gained prominence in their communities because they are skilled professionals who own businesses that provide personal services. Accordingly, they were often looked to for leadership. Carnie Bragg Jr., who was groomed to assume such a role, commented:
It's traditional in the black community that, usually, the funeral director is one of the leaders in the community. I've been blessed again by going to Fisk University, where it was understood that, if you went back into the community, you were going to be a leader trying to help other people.
Bragg took that responsibility seriously. He became president of the Rotary Club, the first black member of the chamber of commerce, and was a founder of the now-defunct Paterson Association for Black Businesses.
The level of activity for a funeral home business is directly related to the size of the local population, and Bragg Funeral Home grew steadily in relation to the growth in Paterson's population. A second building was added to the business in 1957, and the third and fourth buildings followed in the late 1960s. Currently, there are plans to expand again, this time in response to an increase in deaths resulting from the AIDS and crack-cocaine epidemics, a fact which saddens Carnie Bragg.
The funeral home's staff of twenty-five is constantly busy with arrangements. As Carnie Bragg Jr. puts it, "People have no idea what is involved in planning — [it's complicated] just like a wedding, but this you have to do in a few days." His own day begins at 6:30 A.M., when he starts answering the phones. He is particularly involved with the personal side of the business, that includes conducting interviews with family members to draw out details about the life of the deceased, such as hobbies and participation in family reunions. Bragg's staff handles the bulk of the financial transactions with customers. In fact, he says, his staff "doesn't allow me to get involved with the business portion because I know most of the families [who come to us], and I tend to give everything away."
Most people learn about Bragg Funeral Home by word of mouth, since Carnie Bragg does not advertise in the mainstream media. He continues the black funeral-home tradition of printing advertisements on paper fans that are distributed at churches throughout the city. The Bragg family name is well known among African Americans in Paterson, and the business is relied upon to perpetuate longstanding burial traditions.
Jiggetts Transportation, like Bragg Funeral Home, started in a family residence. It was located in George and Martha's rented house on Twelfth Avenue. There were no two-way radios in taxis then, so a speaker was mounted on the Jiggettses' front porch, and when George would drive up and blow the horn, Martha would announce the next customer's address over the sound system. "Every hour in the day we were working," Martha recalls. Even the day she brought her baby daughter, Bobby, home from the hospital, "I worked from the bed, dispatching the cars." As a toddler, Bobby was baby-sat in taxis, and she learned to work the dispatch board by the age of seven. "She was brought up here. She was brought up from a baby into the business."
After saving enough money, the Jiggettses acquired more cabs and moved their operation to 28 Governor Street, "to do nothing but taxis," as George puts it. However, even without the business located in their living room, their home and work lives were forever linked. As a twenty-four-hour-a-day business, the taxi company was always on their minds. Often, George Jiggetts would awake from a dream about a business-related problem, go down to the shop, and put in some work time. For her part, Martha managed the house, drove and dispatched cabs, and spent her waking hours worried about the safety of the drivers. Fifty-two years later, with forty-seven employees and a fleet of taxis, vans, school buses, and charter buses at its current site on Washington Street, this family business, with its humble beginnings, has become an enormous success.
Sweet Potato Pie Company
The same can be said of Sweet Potato Pie, Incorporated, a business, located at 140 Auburn Street, that has twenty-eight employees producing more than ten thousand pies a day. In 1983, when he started the business in his home, Edgar Ramsey was working full time as a manager with the Xerox Corporation. In order to make a go of the pie business, he and his wife divided up tasks so that they could be fit into their already busy schedules. Edgar Ramsey recalls the difficulties of those early days:
Here she had a newborn baby, and when [my wife] came home [from work], her first responsibility was not so much to cook — to prepare the dinner — but to get the potatoes on. So, it was her responsibility to peel the potatoes and put them on the stove to cook, and then she would prepare dinner for the kids. The baby would be crying. She was hungry. And my wife says [to her], "Well, you've got to wait until I get these potatoes peeled." And so, by the time [the potatoes] finished cooking, on an average day, I would be home by then. And so, I would start mixing the batter. But there were times when I wouldn't get home until ten or eleven at night, but you still had to mix the batter because the potatoes were ready.
The Ramseys' experience is a common one in the establishment phase of family businesses as resources — money, time, and energy — are stretched to the limit. Starting a business at home allows the family to more readily accommodate this erratic and all-consuming schedule, in which they are both workers and the managers. Even the children's caretaker was hired with dual responsibilities: the children and the pies.
If they survive this early period, home-based businesses often enter an expansion stage during which the business moves out of the house. For the Ramseys, the expanding business literally moved through the house — from the kitchen to the garage to the basement — before it was transferred to a facility on North Main Street and, later, to its current location. Workers were hired to peel the potatoes, make the batter, and assemble and bake the pies. As a result, Edgar Ramsey was able to devote his energies mainly to the management of the business, his wife went back to a regular schedule of work, and the woman who looked after the Ramsey children and worked in the pie business moved into the full-time job of production manager.
Despite these changes, the pie business still occupies a large amount of Edgar Ramsey's time. As he puts it: "I do this all day, all night sometimes, even on weekends, sometimes sixteen hours a day. You have to take it home with you or to a social affair. It's a twenty-four-hour affair."
Therefore, even though actual pie-making operations have moved out of the Ramseys' home, the business is still very much of the home in the sense that it continues to preoccupy their thoughts and shape their lives. This extension of work into the home — the work- behind-the-work — was found in all other African-American family businesses examined for this report, regardless of size or level of success. For all the proprietors, an extraordinary commitment is required; for some, work activities so overshadow every other activity that the workplace virtually becomes their home. As Easter Benson put it when asked if her E & A Soul Food Restaurant is like a second home to her:
To me it's the first [home] — I only sleep at home. It's been, what, like I got home last night at a quarter to nine. I was in bed by quarter to ten. I got up this morning at three o'clock, [and] by three thirty I was gone. So, to me, this is my home. That's just the place I sleep, out there. That's just the place I sleep.