Perhaps it was the fact that I was so devoted to my maternal grandmother but I have always preferred the company of people older than myself rather than those my own age. After all, two sixteen year olds have only the perspective of life that they have gleaned in perhaps ten truly cognitive years – and that might be a stretch. But a thirty year old to my then teen age mind, well that was someone who had really lived. And a sixty year old. A sixty year old to my thinking was a venerable shrine of living history. I viewed elderly people as true treasures.
When I purchased my condo in Chicago I was in my mid-twenties and by far the youngest owner in the building. Before I could complete the transaction, I had to appear before the condo board and get their approval. The board had the reasonable responsibility of trying to make sure that new owners would observe the condo’s rules and would be an asset to the building and its owners. Naturally, I approached this meeting with a great deal of gravity and seriousness and received the required imprimatur. (While I chalked this up to my professional presentation and polite manner, as I learned later, this was a mere formality as a rejection meant that the association would have had to purchase the unit itself – and there was at that time no reserve fund to accomplish that). Nevertheless, I took my approval as a reminder to be a good, polite and caring neighbor.
Several years went by and a few of my new neighbors urged me to run for election to the board. I really didn’t have an inclination to do so as I was putting in eighty hour weeks at my business and didn’t want the distraction. But after a considerable amount of arm twisting by one of them in particular I agreed to throw my name in the hat for one of the openings. I prepared a brief resume so that the owners could have a more in depth look at my background and that was included with the bios of the other candidates.
The night of the annual meeting and election finally arrived. There were three vacancies and six candidates for those positions. And when the votes were finally tallied, I had come in dead last. I must admit that while I was ambivalent about serving on the board, losing was rather irksome. I thought to myself, “What have I done to offend people?” My ego was bruised, so when the friend who had pushed me into running came over to console me with the words, “Don’t feel bad – everyone loses the first time they run,” I didn’t accept that as graciously as I might.
Well, things have a way of working out. I did not choose to participate as a candidate in the elections the following two years but thereafter, as a matter of self-interest, (I wasn’t happy about the way our funds were being spent), I decided on my own to seek office. This resulted in my serving on the board for eighteen years, six of those as president. One of my fellow board members was a man then in his late seventies. I had gotten to know Harold and his wife Viola because of my work getting out the Republican vote in the precinct. They were two of the very few registered Republicans to be found in the neighborhood.
The bio I had submitted had included the fact that I was one of the principals in an executive search business. I had no idea what Harold had done for a living since he had summed up his life experience with the word, “Retired.” But after our first board meeting, he approached me and said that he had devoted his life and his career to being the owner of an employment agency – so we definitely had something in common. He offered to share some of the stories about his and his wife’s experiences running what, as it turned out, was the very first employment agency that received a license from the State of Illinois in Chicago – back in the 1940’s.
Originally, the employment agency business was dominated by companies that charged the applicant if they found him or her a position. Later, as labor became more scarce and business expanded, employers began paying those fees. But in the old days, it was customary for the employee to pay the agency that secured his employment – an amount that was dictated by the Bureau of Employment Agencies at 84% of the first month’s salary, payable in three monthly installments. That was how Harold and Viola had built their business. They had a specialty. They placed domestic help.
Several months later I ran into Viola as I was leaving for work one morning. She invited me to join Harold and her for dinner the following Saturday. I gratefully accepted their invitation and rang their doorbell promptly at six thirty that night. We had a delightful dinner and although I offered to help clean up, Viola said that wouldn’t be necessary – she would take care of it. Harold invited me to join him in the living room for a brandy.
As we sat on their comfortable sofa, I noticed that there were large volumes, at least thirty of them, on their library shelves. Two of these volumes were on the coffee table. Harold reached for one of these and said, “You might find this interesting. I took pictures of all the people who Viola and I put to work.”
He reached for the first book and opened the cover. There was a picture of a large black woman with a young, smiling Harold and Viola, their arms around her and a caption that read, “Jewel Samson – March 8, 1941 – Cook – Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Feingold, 538 North Dearborn Street.” Page after page, book after book contained these pictures with the titles Washer Woman, Assistant Cook, Housekeeping, Driver and the names and addresses of their employers. The pictures had one thing in common. Every one of the new employees was black.
I was impressed at the sheer number of people for whom this couple had found employment. And perhaps I was even more impressed that Harold had the presence of mind to document his many years in business in this manner. I told him as much.
He said to me, “You know it was a struggle. There were a lot of times that I wasn’t sure we would make it or be able to keep the doors open. But somehow, something always happened and we got over the hump. But you know what the biggest challenge was? In those days, a lot of black folks didn’t trust “’ol Whitey’ as they used to phrase it. So let me show you the pictures that saved our business.”
Harold got up from the couch and reached for a much smaller photo album. He sat down next to me and opened the book. On the first page was a picture of Harold as a child with his parents and on the second a picture of Viola and her family. Despite their extremely light skin, both Harold and Viola were black. I would never have guessed that, despite knowing them for quite a few years.
So Harold hung blown up copies of these two photos in his office and pointed them out to all new applicants who came by for job interviews. That gained the trust of those who might have had qualms about working with a white-owned business. And that business grew and prospered for more than thirty years until the couple retired.
Old folks. You can learn a few things from them if you take the time. They’ve been around.