Two African-American workers at a cotton gin in Memphis, Tenn. have filed federal discrimination charges against a white supervisor who threatened to hang them for drinking from a “white people only” water fountain. And it’s all on tape.
The employees, Antonio Harris and Marrio Mangrum, told news station WREG that their head supervisor at Atkinson Cotton Warehouse called them “monkeys” and directed them to “think like a white man.”
“He pulled his pants down in front of us and told us to kiss his white tail,” said Harris.
After hearing racist comments for months, Harris decided to record his supervisor with his cell phone as he tried to drink from the the warehouse water fountain and use the microwave. When Harris tried to use the microwave, his supervisor yelled at him on tape. “Hell no,” he says in the recording, before explaining that Harris can’t use it because “you’re not white.”
Later in the same recording, Harris drinks from a water fountain his supervisor also declared off limits for non-whites, and then asks the supervisor “[w]hat they do when they catch me drinking your water?” The supervisor responds “[t]hat’s when we hang you.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been working to mediate a settlement with the warehouse. But according to a cotton gin employee, the supervisor has not been fired. Apparently, he’s on vacation.
“Back then, nobody thought anything about [segregation],” the supervisor says in another part of the recording. “Now everybody is made to where to think it’s bad.”
Harris said this kind of racist discrimination wasn’t representative of the entire cotton industry — he worked for a cotton company for 12 years with no racist comments like this. But the incident was a terrible reminder of cotton’s undeniable historical link to slavery and racism.
“I think about this every day. Every day of my life,” Harris said.
Abigail Bessler is an intern at ThinkProgress.