‘Whites Only’ Fountains, Microwaves, Lynching Jokes: Black Cotton Gin Employees Sue For Discrimination

“Whites only” water fountains are something the South is supposed to have moved past long ago, but that’s just the sort of thing two African-American men are saying was the norm at a Memphis, Tenn., cotton gin they used to work at. Whites only microwaves, too, as well as casual discussion of lynchings.

Antonio Harris and Marrio Mangrum this week told WREG News 3 that they endured a segregation-style work environment at Memphis’ Atkinson Cotton Warehouse. The two men, neither of which works for the company any more, say that they and other black employees were subjected to frequent racist comments from their supervisor, who would tell them that they needed to “think like a white man” and once exposed himself in front of workers and told them to “kiss his white tail.”

The real shocker, though, may be the “whites only” water fountain in the warehouse, as well as a similarly segregated microwave. Harris used his cell phone to record an attempt to drink from the fountain.

“I need to put a sign here that says ‘white people only,'” Harris’ former supervisor says in the recording.

It was little different when Harris tried to use the microwave, with his boss telling him he couldn’t use it because “you are not white.”

Harris’ recordings also contain some banter from the supervisor and other presumably white co-workers, wherein they look back to the days of segregation fondly.

“Back then,” the supervisor can be heard saying, “nobody thought anything about it. Now everybody is made to where to think it’s bad.”

When Harris asks what would have happened back then if he had drank from a whites only fountain back then, the supervisor responds:

“That’s when we hang you.”

The recordings may be missing some context, as the parts immediately preceding and following the most inflammatory portions are left out. Still, the possibility that this was simply the normal level of joking for a workplace environment seems remote, especially given the lawsuit from the two men.

The cotton gin supervisor still apparently works for the company, but attempts to contact him have so far failed, as employees say that he is currently on vacation.