King’s Assassination – An Unexpected Incident

Eight square blocks of downtown Wilmington, DE, were in flames in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. I was at work at a plant site near downtown Wilmington and comfortably sitting in my office. I was getting updated periodically by radio about what was happening, but I wasn’t concerned about our secure plant site.

My office and operation areas were in a portable trailer at the rear of the plant. We got our operators for running the systems and equipment from the existing plant, which were primarily low seniority employees. I shared the trailer with Pete DuPont. We had two young secretaries supplied by the plant, who had desks in the middle of the trailer. One of the secretaries was Ernestine, nicknamed Ernie, a black secretary that was supplied from the plant workforce to serve our needs.

On the afternoon of the rioting and fires in Wilmington, I noticed Ernie was pacing back and forth in front of her desk, and she had made several phone calls. I called her into my office and asked if she was having a problem. She told me that she had been trying to reach her mother, who lived in the area of the fires.

I said she should take the rest of the day off and find her mother. Then she told me the police had cordoned off the entire area where her mother lived and not letting anybody into the burned area, except police and firefighters.

I suggested she should try to get through the police lines, and if she was having problems, call me, and I would come to the area and talk to the police to allow her to look for her mother.

Ernie left immediately, and she didn’t call, so I assumed she got through the police lines.

The next morning when Ernie came into the trailer, I called her into my office and asked if she had found her mother, and was she safe? Ernie smiled and said the police let her into the area, and she found her mother, who was okay. She thanked me for letting her take the afternoon off.

Everything went back to normal around the office, and the subject of Ernie’s mother never came up again. I forgot about the incident and was pleased everything worked out happily for Ernie.

About two months later, I got a call from the Plant Manager’s secretary to make Ernie available for an interview by a woman named Gwendolyn form the Atomic Energy Commission plant in Savannah, GA. Ernie went to the interview, came back to the trailer, and went back to her routine.

I don’t remember her leaving the trailer to go to the interview nor her coming back. It didn’t involve any of my staff, so it didn’t come up in any discussions.

About two weeks later, I got a call from the Plant Manager to come to his office. He said he wanted to discuss something about our operation. I went to his office that afternoon and was ushered into his office and seated across from him. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘What did you do to Ernie?’ I was almost dumbstruck. I said I didn’t do anything to Ernie.

The PM said he just received the report from Gwendolyn that our plant received a negative rating form the Equal Opportunities Commission and specifically cited that I coerced Ernie into giving the plant and me, as her supervisor, a good rating. Furthermore, the PM told me Ernie had given the plant a negative rating to questions about equal treatment of minorities nine years in a row, and this was the first year she only had good things to say about the plant. Then he asked again, how could I explain the different response from Ernie?’

I was dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. I told the PM I didn’t do anything to Ernie, and I could not explain the reason she changed her mind and gave us a good rating. I could see the PM was having a hard time believing me. He knew Ernie from previous complaints about the treatment of minorities on the plant, which was 25% minorities of the total plant workforce. I told the PM I didn’t know of or hear any negative complaints from any of my employees.

The PM was not satisfied with my answer, and it showed in his expression. He didn’t believe me. Then I remembered the incident of the rioting and letting Ernie have time off work. I also mentioned I had offered to get her through the police lines. I told the PM it was the only thing that might explain her change in attitude towards the plant and me.

The PM said he believed me, but he had no concrete way to convince his Departmental Management the accusation of coercing Ernie was false.

As I left the PM’s office, I had a hard time believing a simple offer to help someone made such a dramatic change in a person’s attitude. I never asked Ernie about the favorable report, so the incident will go down in history as trying to do something good that turned into a negative.

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