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By Stacey Petersen*


My great grandparents were born into slavery on a plantation in Florence, Alabama. My grandfather was unable to adapt to the ways of the South: not only did he fear for his family's safety, but he also wanted to seek job opportunities that the North seemed to offer. The family relocated to Bloomington, Illinois, where my father was born in 1897. My mother was born in St. Joseph Parish, Louisiana in 1903. At an early age, she had to leave her mother due to the threatening sexual advances of a white plantation foreman. My grandmother sent my mother to Mississippi, as she feared for her safety after having made threats to the white foreman. My mother later relocated to Chicago, where she met my father and married in 1925.

Growing up in Chicago during the 1930s, I personally experienced discrimination against "Negroes" in so far as employment is concerned. To my recollection, the only jobs available for Negroes were mainly in the service area, such as janitors and maids. A select few could become doctors if they attended black medical schools in the South. Many black women worked in the homes of middle and upper class whites. These "working in service" jobs included tasks such as tending to children, cleaning, and washing and ironing clothes.

Blacks were limited to menial service jobs with a few working for the post office. While the post office seemed to be the largest employer of blacks in Chicago, still very few moved up to supervisory positions. There were only approximately a dozen Negroes working for the police and fire departments in the black areas of Chicago. Even in these black areas, whites still held a majority of the management positions.

For the most part, there were few middle-class blacks. I remember during the 1930s and into the early '40s, blacks were not allowed to try on clothes at certain large retail stores in downtown Chicago. We were not allowed to be in certain public establishments that were reserved for whites only. Some black musicians played for white establishments; however, they were required to enter through the back door and couldn't mingle with the patrons. During the '30s and until the end of World War II, blacks in Chicago were restricted mostly to the South Side ghetto area. It wasn't until 1947 that blacks started to move out of this part of the city into adjacent areas. The attempts to break out of the ghetto created a lot of friction, including the burning of houses, people being beaten, and even being shot. I was a police officer during this time and was personally involved in protecting some of these people.

I attended an all-black school, kindergarten through eighth grade, in Chicago's South Side ghetto area. At the end of the eighth grade, educationally, I was at the very top of my class. Then, I attended high school for four years on the north side of Chicago in an all-white area where my sister and I were two of seven black students in the entire school. It was typical for parents to send their children outside the ghetto to receive a better education. Those families that could afford it had to make up phony addresses to get their children into the better schools. Throughout our years at high school, our classmates generally accepted us, but their parents did not. As a result, whenever there was a party or a social event after school, neither my sister nor I could attend because the parents didn't think it was proper. They worried about what the neighbors would think if black children were being invited into their neighborhood.

I finished high school in June 1944 as an average student. My attitude had taken a turn for the worse, as I had to ride the elevated train a long distance to get to school, and many teachers displayed hostility towards the black students. Needless to say, it was not a great environment in which to learn. As a way to escape from these difficulties, I became active in aviation at age fourteen. Learning to fly served as a great diversion for me.


I volunteered for the Army Air Corps in high school and was to become a fighter pilot in the segregated Army and Army Air Corps. I was to enter my flight training in 1945 with the Tuskegee Airmen in Tuskegee, Alabama, but due to the bomb being dropped on Japan in August 1945, my class was the first to be cut from pilot training. The Army didn't need any more black pilots, so I was reassigned to Squadron "F," which was an all black service unit for maintenance work. Due to the shortage of mechanics and my previous civilian training, I was attached to a white squadron for duty on the flight line as a mechanic. When World War II ended, the military didn't really seem to know what to do with blacks in my classification. I was offered an early discharge in the winter of 1946 and decided to take it so that I could return to college.


I enrolled in the Chicago branch of the University of Illinois under the GI Bill of Rights. When I talked to the Veterans Administration counselor prior to starting college, he advised me to not go to college and instead take up a trade because there would be no opportunities for an educated Negro in professional positions. Against his advice, I was determined to pursue a college education. I took my chances on the United States becoming a better place to live, with more opportunities for minorities in the future. Like many others, I was very excited that the war was over and was anxious to return to the sweetheart I had left behind. I was married in February 1947 at the age of nineteen. I needed a job, so I worked full-time while attending college part-time. I qualified for one of the first civil service jobs after World War II as a police officer in Chicago.

While a police officer in Chicago, I advanced rapidly, attaining the rank of Plainclothesman, where I conducted investigations of felony crimes. When I left Chicago in 1953, there were only two black captains. While the majority of officers were white, there were approximately thirty-five black officers at that time. There were no black lieutenants and, generally, supervisors at all levels were white, even in black areas. I decided to move to California in 1953 and continue in law enforcement, working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, where conditions were not better for blacks and other minorities. For example, the female deputies and black males were assigned exclusively to the jail division, with a few in transportation and the Watts area station. I also continued working full-time and attending college part-time. Because I had been moving about, I was unable to establish the residency requirement for my Bachelor's degree though I had more than enough hours. Finally, in 1960, I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology with a minor in criminology from San Francisco State College after meeting their residency requirements.


In 1955, I was hired by the state of California as an investigator and was able to obtain a civil service position with the California Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) as an investigator/conciliator in 1960. As in Chicago, discrimination was rampant in other parts of the country. Even though Northern cities were considered "better" than the South, discrimination was very typical in all parts of the country, which I personally experienced in travel throughout the North and South. For example, in California, most black females were not permitted in anything other than low-level clerical jobs. Even the largest communication company had only a few operators that were black. Office and supervisory positions were unheard of, as black males working for this company were in maintenance only. I'm not specifically targeting the communications industry, but only using it as an example because all the other utilities and large businesses were similarly involved in such discriminating practices.

While working for the California FEPC, it was my experience that most covered employers were in violation of the law. Voluntary compliance with the law was slow, yet this was a step in the right direction. We worked on the basis of investigation and then conciliation with some weight from the state of California behind us. There was a lot of work to be done and voluntary compliance was slow. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and the EEOC got going in 1965 on a very limited basis. Prior to my employment with the California FEPC, I had thirteen years of full-time investigative experience in law enforcement, which was quite helpful in the transition from criminal to civil rights enforcement. As an individual, I have a history prior to the California FEPC and the EEOC as one involved in attempting to further human rights through involvement with several prominent civil rights organizations. A couple of the major organizations that I was involved included the Urban League, the NAACP and other organizations pursuing equality and rights for all.


In 1965, Ms. Aileen Hernandez, a FEPC commissioner, was appointed as a commissioner to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She asked me if I would be interested in helping the EEOC by conducting some training and investigating some cases. This was before they were able to hire a full-time permanent staff, so I was considered "on loan" from the California FEPC to the EEOC. I agreed to do that and, around June of 1965, I went to work on loan to the US EEOC from the state of California.

I was involved in the first group that received the orientation in Washington, D.C., from the five commissioners: Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., Aileen Hernandez, Sam Jackson, Dick Graham, and Luther Holcomb. Some of the speakers included Whitney Young, Patrick Moynihan, Roy Wilkins, Dr. Hector Garcia, and A. Philip Randolph. This orientation was held at the Department of Commerce at the secretary's conference room and was chaired by Franklin Roosevelt Jr. During this first week, it was mostly orientation to the commission by the above-mentioned people outlining their expectations and challenges. It was the first opportunity to meet with the other individuals that would be doing the field work for the commission. Some of those included Paul Brock, Pedro Esquivel, Maurice Lawrence, Marie Poston, Cal Banks, John Rayburn, Chester Gray and several administrative assistants such as Jacqueline Bradford, who were on hand to provide assistance. We had individuals representing the Veterans Administration, Department of Labor, Office of Personnel Management, the Post Office Department, and a few other agencies that had investigators who would be interested in helping to get the EEOC going in the field.

We underwent further training at the EEOC temporary headquarters at 1730 K Street, Washington, D.C., our first office. While we were trying to establish operational procedures, we were also just beginning to know each other. There was an immediate bond because, without exception, the people that I worked with were dedicated and eager to eradicate employment discrimination in this country, regardless of any personal sacrifice. It was the finest group of people I had ever been associated with.


As stated earlier, my first position with the EEOC involved training other investigators in the area of equal employment opportunity. I also helped set up task forces to go South for investigations because we badly wanted to make an impact down there. In the South, most of the time we were fearful of the potential for bodily injury. Harassment was all around us. It was extremely dangerous conducting investigations in those days because of the large number of anti-civil rights people in the South, namely the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). While investigating, I had personal experiences with KKK activities in the way of harassment. For example, I was food poisoned from being in a restaurant where apparently they didn't feel I was welcomed. Also, in Onslo County, North Carolina, the first thing they greeted us with when we got off the plane from Washington, D.C., was a sign hanging up on a big pine tree that said, "The Greater Klans of America welcome you to Onslo County." I thought this was more than interesting.

The violent racism in the South caused us to take extreme precautions in contacting our complainants and witnesses. We thought that we were being somewhat careful by renting unmarked cars, but that didn't work. We started finding KKK pamphlets and other literature on our windshields. The Klan had somehow found out about the employers we were investigating and somehow knew we were coming. We found out later that the FBI supervisor in charge of the area was married to the sister of the head Klansman. That seemed to be a major leak. In fact, it got so bad that we moved from our motel to the Marine military base, Camp Lejune, North Carolina, to transact our written business and for our own safety. We never stopped investigating during the day and seeing our complainants at night. Our experience in Onslo County is just one example of the dangers we faced.


To my best recollection on training in conciliation, we had several lawyers from the Department of Labor speak to us. They gave us lectures and information on how they conducted their conciliation. However, coming from the California FEPC, I already had training in that area. It was really a hurried training situation so that we could get out in the field and let the country know that the EEOC was in existence and would be out there doing a job to try to carry out the law. I can't speak much about conciliation because that was not what I was involved in. I was primarily involved in investigating and determining if there was reasonable cause to believe that discrimination had occurred. Since 1965, I was involved in training as a duty on the national level. Of course, that was a relatively easy thing to do since the evidence was so blatant in the early years. It was rare that we would leave without finding cause for filing the complaint.


The people that stayed with the EEOC during that 1965 and early 1966 period were the people that I remember. Without exception, they were all competent and committed people. There was no such thing as being concerned about working overtime or working weekends. We had a job and dedication to go with it. It required days - even weeks - away from home. In fact, some of us ended up with divorces because our spouses couldn't accept how much we were away from home. It involved a lot of sacrifice, but we were willing to make that sacrifice.

In the early days, we didn't have field offices, so everything was done from the central office in Washington, D.C. We would leave from there with a large number of cases to be investigated, our travel vouchers, and an eagerness to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. There were a number of people that had a great impact on me. Some of them included Jacqueline Bradford, Paul Brock, Pedro Esquivel, Chester Gray, Aileen Hernandez, Maurice Lawrence, Marie Poston, and John Rayburn. All of us constituted a very powerful force for the EEOC. The greatest impact these people had on me was their level of dedication. It was so profound and was something I had never experienced before. We enjoyed our work and enjoyed seeing progress. I viewed my work as a challenge, not just a job.

My recollections of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., the first chairman of the EEOC, were limited because we really didn't have much time to spend around the headquarters talking to the chairman or the commissioners. To me, he came across as being a sincere person. His enthusiasm at that time for what we were doing was contagious. We needed that enthusiasm. I don't have any specific recollections of experiences with presidents Johnson or Nixon, or the commissioners, except that they were hard working and were available to us. They gave us good support in the early days. Regarding the members of Congress in 1965 - 66, the blacks and some of the liberal whites were supportive of the EEOC.


My early experiences with the EEOC were in the South. Every place we went, the NAACP and other groups were just delighted we were there. We were treated royally because we brought some hope from the US government. In addition to our investigating of cases, we also had many speaking engagements with various civil rights groups in the areas that we conducted our work. This was done nights and weekends and never interfered with investigative time requirements or appointments.

I would say the employers during the investigations, especially those in the South, were not happy to see us. Many of them were familiar with and supported the Klan activities. Records were sometimes destroyed or hidden. In many cases, they would even deny having records. Our clients would advise differently, and tell us who to see and where to look for records or information. There was a limited degree of cooperation insofar as compliance was concerned. Often we would have to call upon our legal department and the Attorney General for legal assistance in getting information or documents. Employers realized that they were not talking to the local NAACP, but were dealing with an agency of the United States government. Our job was to determine if violations of the law were occurring, to get the evidence and, if warranted, bring it back with a recommendation of probable cause or in some cases, no probable cause.

As I stated earlier, with most cases, there was plenty of probable cause to believe that discrimination had been and was occurring. Sometimes employers would hire token black people just to get someone of color on the payroll. If there were opportunities for promotion, some token promotions would occur at the lower levels. Most of these early jobs were entry-level jobs, so it wasn't difficult to open their doors and hire someone at entry-level. The thrust in those days was to get people into jobs. You have to first get hired before you qualify to be promoted. Our main focus was to get jobs for people that were heretofore denied to them because of discrimination.

In the early days of the EEOC, the commission would occasionally hold training conferences and bring in the EEOC leadership from various parts of the country. This allowed us to be consistent in our approach to what we were doing. It was also a good opportunity for us to meet and greet each other, especially those who were coming in after 1966.


In 1966, a few field offices were beginning to open up. The original group of employees went to different field offices throughout the country in urban areas. I was assigned to the San Francisco Regional Office in California. I was hired as a full-time civil service employee of the EEOC in February of 1966, at which time I terminated my employment with the California FEPC. With the creation of the field offices, it was an opportunity for those of us who were in management or supervisory positions to discuss the problems that presented themselves in carrying out our functions. We were able to draw on the experiences of each other to devise a training program to implement in newly developing offices for investigators and conciliators.


In late 1966, when I was with the new San Francisco District Office, I was involved with staffing and training of all new employees, which included taking new employees to the field for their first investigations. This is also what I did in the Southern offices during my earlier days. In 1967, I was promoted to Deputy Regional Director of the San Francisco Regional Office. In that position, I conducted training for our investigators and for the national task force. I performed duties as a task-force member on a national level by going to different areas and conducting training in the district offices and headquarters. In September 1967, I was returning from an investigation with one of the new investigators on a San Francisco-area freeway. I was seriously injured in an automobile accident, which subsequently created painful back and neck problems for me throughout the remaining time I served with the commission and to this day.


Because of the success I had in my work with the San Francisco Regional Office, I was promoted as the Regional Director of the New York Regional Office in 1970. One of the major responsibilities I had in this new office was the opening of several district offices within the New York region, such as New York City, Boston, Buffalo, and Newark. I was responsible for staff training as well as selecting and hiring the staff for these various offices. This was a period of district office growth throughout the entire commission. In 1973, at my previous request and earlier understanding with the chairman, William Brown III, I returned to San Francisco, California, as the District Director. I was in that capacity until I left the commission in July of 1975 because of poor health. After the EEOC, I went to graduate school in Minnesota and received a Master's degree in human development.


During the early 70s, the mission of the commission remained the same, but the emphasis changed. We had gone beyond just working for entry-level jobs to equal opportunities on the job insofar as promotions and transfers were concerned. We had a very strong thrust beginning in 1969 with the Women's Movement for upgrading women in employment. There was a lot of pressure put on the commission in this area and rightly so. During that period of time, and obviously, the commission was so overloaded with complaints of discrimination that there were thousands upon thousands of uninvestigated cases. We called that the "backlog". Backlog was a word we heard a lot during those days. We could barely keep up with the work before the Women's Movement and the Mexican Americans became more actively involved. We were swamped - it was a snowball effect. I was a person who believed in quality investigation resulting in positive changes rather than just processing cases. I imagine that didn't set too well with certain people that were looking for a statistical record rather than quality changes as we had pursued in earlier days of the commission.


When I look back at my days at the United States EEOC, my single most important goal was to give people hope and opportunities through enforcement of Title VII. With this hope came dedication. I gave above and beyond what was expected of me, as was very typical of the original investigators. We wanted to make changes in this country and that's what we accomplished. I would like to be remembered as a pioneer who helped to bring about improvements in the standard of living for all minorities and women by my efforts to end job discrimination.

*Stacey Petersen is a candidate for a Master of Arts Degree with a specialization in Legal Studies at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

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