The ‘blackface' workplace: ‘I never felt more alone in my life'

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Montrelle Reese, left, and Rev. Jesse Jackson meet at Rainbow PUSH headquarters, 930 E. 50th St., Monday, Feb. 6, 2012, in Chicago. Reese met with Jackson to discuss claims of racial discrimination against him while working for ThyssenKrupp North America. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Montrelle Reese said he “never felt more alone in my life” than he did during the two years he worked as a sales representative for the Westchester office of ThyssenKrupp Elevator.

It wasn’t just the frequent use of the n-word by his white supervisors and co-workers, the disparaging references to black neighborhoods that comprised Reese’s sales turf or even the blackface routine at a company meeting, he said.

It was the fact that a racially hostile work environment more prevalent in the 1960s was “part of the culture” at a German conglomerate that now wants to bring its North American regional headquarters to Chicago, Reese said.

Reese, who is African-American, worked at ThyssenKrupp Elevator from November 2007 until January 2010, before resigning because he said he could no longer tolerate the hostility.

On Monday, he talked to the Chicago Sun-Times about the allegations of abuse that prompted the Illinois Department of Human Rights to find “substantial evidence of discrimination” against the company that Mayor Rahm Emanuel proudly welcomed to Chicago last week.

“I never felt more alone in my life. I was in a depressed state. I would sit in my car for 20 to 30 minutes prior to entering the building, because I couldn’t handle being there,” said Reese, 33.

“These were the people directly responsible for my success in the company. I had to tolerate it. But after that blackface incident, I couldn’t take it anymore. I resigned in one of the toughest job markets in my lifetime, but I didn’t care. It was a regional conference. Management on every level was there. And that was funny to them.”

He added, “It wasn’t behind closed doors. It was out in the open. It was a collective atmosphere created by everyone. Without question, it was tolerated. There was no secret what was going on, because everybody participated.”

Reese said he will never forget the first time a white supervisor used the n-word. It was to instruct a mechanic to “n—– rig” an elevator and use the “n—– head” to hoist the elevator up.

“He referred to it as an n-head because it’s a pulley system that includes a black disc with a cable around it that looked like a noose around a black person’s neck,” Reese said.

“That really bothered me. I said, ‘Excuse me. What did you say?’ It was no big deal for him. That was a snapshot of the culture of the company. I don’t care if I don’t get any money out of this lawsuit [he plans to file]. I want to expose them.”

Reese said he was also forced to endure disparaging remarks from white co-workers about drugs and prostitutes in black neighborhoods, including Hyde Park.

“I couldn’t get anybody to go to jobs with me. There was always an excuse. When I finally did get somebody to go, I had colleagues tell me, ‘I’d better bring my gun. We’re going to the ‘hood today’ or ‘They’ve got the best prostitutes in Gary.’ And they’d say, ‘Take me to get some ribs’ and ‘Give me some of that soul food.’”

Last week, Emanuel embraced ThyssenKrupp for the 100 well-paying jobs the company promised to bring to Chicago.

Reese, who was one of only two black sales representatives in the entire region, is not so sure the company is worth having.

“I want Chicago to prosper, of course. I want jobs to come to Chicago. But, if a black person was to be hired, how would they be treated? If they come to Chicago, there would have to be some changes,” he said.

Christian Koenig, president and head of the Washington D.C. office of ThyssenKrupp USA, Inc., could not be reached for comment on Reese’s allegations. An attorney who represented the company in the case has denied any wrongdoing.

On Monday, Rev. Jesse Jackson demanded a meeting with Koenig and a thorough investigation of Reese’s allegations before the company makes its move to Chicago.

“If one can assume that the report is true, this is incredible. It would be beneath our civil rights standard,” Jackson said, before meeting with Reese at Rainbow-PUSH headquarters.

“Often, these kinds of discrimination are more subtle. This appears to be rather audacious. This requires the most thorough investigation by elected officials and civil rights organizations. Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the mayor and our Congress people have a role to play in this.”

Emanuel responded to Jackson’s demand for an investigation with a statement that went a step further than his condemnation of last week.

“We find the alleged behavior reprehensible and encourage ThyssenKrupp to immediately and substantively address not only this specific matter but any other such behavior in their global conglomerate. There is absolutely no place for behavior like this in Chicago,” the mayor said.

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