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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

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.

Six workers wrapping cooked pies with plastic wrap.

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.

Close-up of Benson's hand in the batter.

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.

Listen

Lenny Jones: "I think it's time for me to retire, I can go no further."

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