Ace Jackson, An Interview
For the past 40 years, Ace Jackson has been a member of Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 293 in Mobile, Alabama, where he now serves as business agent of the local. "Raised into the trade," he took several hours on the eve of his seventieth birthday to recall the master builders of the older generation and his own history in the traditionally black-dominated trowel trades.
They came up through slavery times. They was masters of it all.
The white man didn't do any of that work in those days – it was too heavy, too hard. He didn't like those trades. They made unions. Unions were segregated all but for the bricklayers, the masons and the plasterers. The carpenters wouldn't take any colored, and even today the plumbers and electricians don't. We were the only one.
This union is over 100 years old. The carpenters organized about '38, '39. All the others around in there. But the brick masons came from slavery time. That was handed down from generation to generation and I've handed it down to some of my children. These are the things that I reckon were handed down to us to do, to see that everybody eats.
I done all of it. I was raised into the trade. My father was a brick mason. My mother's father was a brick mason. My father's father was a full-blood African, and he was a brick mason. He was a slave.
There was a group of people – the nephews, the uncles, the daddies – made up a crew. Some were carpenters, some were finish carpenters, some were plasterers, some were mold makers [for plaster casts in houses], and so forth. That was a little before World War I. One went out and contracted a store, maybe two stores, then the others worked until it was finished and somebody contracted another job. Got along that way. Went North, was in St. Louis for a long time. A lot of work up there.
When I was, oh, about nine years I old I was backing bricks on the wall with my father in Milwaukee. We traveled from places to places, wherever we found buildings. We had some tough years in those days. Worked for low scale – worked for 30 and 40 cents an hour down to 10 cents an hour for labor. One dollar a day for 10 hours, those people that backed up the wall.
Mostly all of this union now is another generation from mine… The new generation now ain't as proud of their work as the old generation. The older generation were tradesmen – that's from my day back and I'm 70 tomorrow. You take when first started off, if you put one brick in a wall, you'd come back and look at it to see that nothing was wrong with that work, and if it wasn't just right, had a speck or something on it, had to take that brick out in those days. You went home and you worried about that. You were kind of ashamed of it. He'd [the owner] done bought a piece of work you were ashamed of. Didn't feel good. You'd want men to be willing to take it out themselves – without pay – at that time if they done any mistake. And so that was pride. More pride than labor's got now.
During the war [World War II] work got faster. Now take this young generation of people, he don't worry about it if he makes a mistake in his work. They moving with the times, I reckon and I think, sometimes, it's a good thing. Because in those days, we had more time to do a job. But now, everything's hurried they put different chemicals in the materials and you have to hurry.
Farmers Home can't finance. We've got about 8,000 people in our county out of 24,000 that need decent homes. Sixty percent of the homes in the county are substandard, 30 percent of the people below poverty level. FmHA gives loans for four houses a month.
If a man, a tobacco farmer in our county, is making $3,000 to $4,000 a year and he grows all his own food, he keeps a cow, he goes out and works odd jobs and makes a little extra money, Farmers Home won't give a loan for a new house, but a bank – at traditional interest rates – can't lose. If they build him a house on piece of property and he can't pay for it, they can take that house back and sell it and make money. The problem I see is the banks are more interested in investing their money in Mead Corporation or Tennessee Eastman where they can make a big quick return than they are in investing it in housing. If that can be changed then a hell of a lot of people will have housing opened up to them.
Richard Kennedy: I think banks have a particular function. They're very conservative. They don't want to use their resources. Their resources are coming from somebody else. When I put money in my savings account and that guy takes money out of my savings in account and puts it in an underground house that falls down, he can't get any of my money back. So they’re very conservative people. There's a need for that type of conservatism in a certain sense.
Randy Hodges (Solar Greenhouse Employment Project, Clinton, Tennessee): Why is there a need for that type of conservatism?
Richard Kennedy: For the same reason I'd use a 12-inch block in a situation where I thought maybe an eight-inch block might work. But I had an eight-inch block fall down on me once. So I'm much more conservative now and use more materials in my building to be sure it won't fall down again. I think everybody has an innate sort of conservatism to them in some way. I'm just saying that there's a need for a certain portion of that, and I don't blame those bankers for being conservative cause they worry a lot more than I do. They worry a lot more about losing that money.
Randy Hodges: Yeah, but they've got control of that money. And money is the first big hurdle that most folks face when trying to put a house up.
Richard Kennedy: I guess the way we look at things is different. Among the people that I deal with in the banks and the building trades and people I deal with in general there are folks who are satisfied and content with their livelihood and there're people who're dissatisfied and discontent with their livelihood and I think that bankers are just as poor as the rest of us if not worse.
I seen the time when you straightedged a wall from bottom to top. But now you have to be able to sight a wall. Take a long straightedge and be able to work behind a machine. Before, a man come along with a straightedge and he laid it all over that wall, he checked all your angles. Nobody does that these days. The times has moved up that we don't do that no more. If you go out and start doing that, the man come up and say, "Look here, I ain't got that kind of money. . . . It's all right, but ain't got that kinda money." So you have to be able to follow the machines. Pouring the floor of this union hall, we poured a base first, then come back with a topping, and again with another topping. Nobody gonna do that no more. You find some old sidewalks like that – look like they gonna stay around forever… Now we're traveling faster.
We had no discrimination in our union for 100 years. That was set up from the beginning, way back from slavery time – no discrimination. To no nation. Up until today we don't have any. We were the only people that worked up on the wall together. Mostly working the trade was Italians and colored when I was working, 30, 40 years ago. We were outnumbered with colored, but don't have any trouble out of that. We worked together and we come down the walls together.
It seems that more and more whites are coming into the union. Just about as many whites now as colored. Most of the whites in this local are plasterers – not too many white cement masons. But in this part of town, the colored have built this one local – we've always had a black leader and reckon there'll be a black leader here when step down. And we've had no throwing out about the leader.
We have people coming in here being "funny" sometimes – but no discrimination. Now if a colored man comes in here and goes out to job, and white man come after, then he works for the colored man, and if the white man's the first man that's sent to a job – if he can keep that job – then he's the foreman. So everybody that's in this trade [in this local], after he finishes his apprenticeship, is foreman at one time or another. Everybody goes out of here the same – that's why I say every man eats out of the same plate. If every thing was as good as the race problem in this local, it'd be a wonderful place to live and work. It made a good thing when the unions came into be. I think it's been a good thing for the South – even before all this [attempts at achieving racial equality] come about, these things been going on.
We [the local] do all the work in this jurisdiction. Especially in the plastering, some in the cement masonry. We got a good set-up and good mechanics – you find the best mechanics in the jurisdiction right here. All of these cement trades are skilled crafts because you can't go back and fix it the next day. You got to keep good mechanics in cement. You can go skim plaster the next day, but cement's different story. I ain't in here at 6:00 a.m. to worry about them plasterers – they can go back. But you got to have enough cement men on hand to get a job done right that day, the first time.
We've never had a walk out strike. Now we've had some wage agreement strikes, but we don't walk off the job. We'd like to see everything union here – which we once had – but so many different folks set in here to make it un-union, such as Brown and Root, your big contractors.
Brown and Root first come in here 25 or 30 years ago and built their own construction office just north of here. We [the building trades locals] went up when they come in and we made picket lines and, well, he got an injunction against us and the judge kinda settled against us out there walking that picket line with a hundred or so men. [Brown and Root] didn't come out then – he stayed there until about five years ago. When he come out he had the nonunion side, which was all right. We got along with Brown and Root's non-union side good.
Well, he got a dye plant north of here, then a chemical plant, then he got a cement plant. He'd been here [in the Mobile County area] five years and built himself an office. You couldn't call him an out-of-town contractor no more. I reckon we got Brown and Root now. Ain't nobody here to bid against him. Got to have somebody from somewhere else. Just like Texas now… [Brown and Root, one of the world's largest construction contracting firms, began operation in Texas, and currently controls most bridge and highway construction in and around Mobile County.]
In my time we've had some ups and downs, work has been slow, work has been plentiful. Sometimes, if it gets to the place have to divide the work up – try to do that. If you go today and the other man don't get anything, then that man goes the next day – I've got to be able to talk to the men and tell them that. I go around to the contractors and make that understood.
So everybody eats and stays out of the welfare. He's allowed to draw his unemployment, but no welfare. By dividing it so closely and doing this, we stay out of that thing. Don't have nobody drawing no stamps, nobody drawing nothing from the people. If I have a man down there – and during the storm [Hurricane Frederick] I had to have some men down there for a few days I promise the welfare people and the stamp people, "If you issue them some stamps, I guarantee we won't have to be on your hands afterwards." So we arrange it that if a man doesn't make the four or five a hundred a week, he does make one or two. That's every week.
Now a mason, in the local, will make $20,000 to $25,000 a year – carpenter makes about the same thing, maybe a little more. The cement masons make a little more than the other trowel trades, because his overtime pay is better, and pouring cement, he has to work overtime. I can usually keep my plasterers busy year-round, but it takes a lot of getting around to find that work…We restore some old houses and historic buildings, and there's some stucco work. Through the hard times though, a man's encouraged to save some money – sometimes, we get into some problems, get a man on stamps. The stamp people call me and say, "Well help him and I'll do my best to get him off y'all's hands as quick as I can." They know I'm telling the truth. They know I'm not trying to rip em off.
Rain or shine, I'm here. In cement work you got a lot of day-by-day work. You got to be in here to transfer men from job to job. May be pouring slabs three or four different places. We get by on day-to-day sometimes, but try to work it around so all of them get some kind of pay check every Friday. It's a big job – when you serve the people.
Many thanks to Ace Jackson, Frank Saffel, Vice President of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association of the United States and Canada, who led us to him, and to Elley Blount, President of BHC Paving Company in Columbus, Georgia.