When he graduated from Proviso East High School in 1947, my 90-year-old great-uncle, Richard Linyard (my family calls him Uncle Dickey), got a job working as a porter at Bond Clothing Store in Oak Park, where he would wash show windows, among other duties.
“A white gentleman, [en route] to work across the street at the Oak Park Trust and Savings Bank, would often stop and chat with me for a few minutes as I washed the windows,” my uncle once told Chicago author and businessman Dempsey Travis for Travis’s 1991 book “Racism—American Style: A Corporate Gift.”
“Ernest Wagner, the vice president of the bank, frequently signed my $3 money order checks when I went to the bank on Fridays,” my uncle said. “One day while he was signing my money order, Mr. Wagner told me, ‘We’ve got a very fine colored janitorial force working here. How would you like to work for us when we get an opening?’”
My uncle took the job, which paid $198 a month at the time ($98 more than his monthly earnings as a porter at Bond). While operating the passenger elevator, my uncle encountered Ellis Denny, the bank’s president, and told Denny that he “would like to do something other than janitorial work.”
Denny promoted my uncle to full-time elevator operator and, noticing how cordial and friendly Dickey was with the customers, recommended he enroll at the American Institute of Banking. In 1956, my uncle obtained his first white-collar job as a bookkeeper. A couple months later, Denny promoted him to teller.
After 14 years with Oak Park Trust, my uncle, who never stepped foot on a college campus, had accumulated “more bank experience than any other Black” in the Chicago area except for three other people Travis names in his book.
But Uncle Dickey also knew that, without a college degree and without whiteness, his future at Oak Park Trust was limited (“he knew in his heart and head that there was not even a remote possibility of becoming the president of that institution or any other white-owned bank,” Travis writes).
Dickey figured he would stay with Oak Park Trust “11 more years and become eligible for a pension at age 45.” Since my uncle considered that age too young to retire, he “targeted the post office as his next career move,” where he planned to be for 20 years in order to draw two pensions by the time he retired at 65.
That would’ve been my uncle’s working life, if it weren’t for a group of Black investors who saw his talent and recommended he join them in opening what would eventually grow into one of the biggest and oldest Black-owned banks in the country — Seaway National Bank of Chicago. In 1973, he was appointed the bank’s president, Travis writes.
I thought of Uncle Dickey after Vernon Jordan died on March 1 at age 85. The Harvard professor and popular historian Henry “Skip” Gates called Jordan the “Rosa Parks of Wall Street.” But to me, Jordan — who was a civil rights attorney active with the NAACP and National Urban League before becoming a partner at the tony law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, and adviser to U.S. presidents — was more like the Dickey of corporate America.
Like my uncle, Jordan was tall, good-looking and graceful. I suspect Dickie may have gotten his dignified mien, at least partially, from my great-great-grandfather, Charles, who was a chauffeur for a wealthy white family who lived in Oak Park.
In the documentary “Vernon Jordan: Make It Plain,” which is now streaming at pbs.org, Jordan said he got his graceful mien, in part, by mimicry.
Jordan, whose father was a postal worker, grew up in Atlanta’s University Homes housing project, the first federally funded housing project in the nation. The project was within walking distance from Atlanta’s great university system, the cluster of Historically Black Colleges and Universities that includes Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Spelman.
One day, a young Jordan saw Morehouse President Benjamin Mays, a mentor to Martin Luther King, “leaving his house walking to the campus and I’m 20 feet behind him.” A quick study, Jordan began to copy the great man’s stroll.
Just as Denny was to my uncle, Jordan was a mentor and a way-maker to a Who’s Who of Black corporate titans, including Ken Chenault, the former CEO and chairman of American Express, on whose board Jordan once served.
At one time, Jordan was serving on 10 major corporate boards, prompting the Street, the trade publication, to dub that period of Jordan’s activity “the age of Vernon Jordan.” By 2015, though, corporate governance had become a much more involved endeavor and serial directorships much less common, the Street explains.
The stories of men like my uncle Dickey and Vernon Jordan — men who came from the laboring class, who accumulated a variety of work and life experiences before matriculating into executive suites and corporate board rooms, who were promoted less because of their paid-for pedigrees than because of their slow-and-steady positioning and proximity to wisdom — are less common now, even as college degrees and college debt have grown exponentially.
And that’s unfortunate, because more companies could use perspectives like Dickey’s and Vernon’s on their boards.
A new report shows 67 percent of the 74 public companies in Illinois that submitted information on the gender and ethnic breakdowns of their boards to the Illinois Secretary of State have at least two female directors while only 35 percent of them have at least two non-white directors.
There’s definitely a crisis in equity and representation on corporate boards in Illinois, but there is also a deeper crisis that you won’t pick up by just reading a diversity report and that’s the crisis in corporate values.
Frankly, our economy no longer makes my uncle’s Oak Park version of the American Dream possible and that’s partly because companies increasingly consider their employees disposable.
Those of us who have entered the workplace since the 1990s have been haunted by the specter of “uselessness,” in the words of sociologist Richard Sennett.
We have been conditioned to passively accept employment insecurity as if it’s just a natural phenomenon. We’re taught that, since companies value profits more than people, we should just adjust, be flexible and smart while facing constant threats like downsizing, consolidation and “efficiency.”
In the lingo of Wall Street, and with a nod to the scholarship of anthropologist Karen Ho, workers, even knowledge workers like accountants and bankers, are becoming increasingly liquidated, their jobs rendered disposable because of automation, the supply of cheaper labor overseas and because reaching retirement in our era of overdrive and early burnout is becoming rarer with each successive generation.
“Bankers are motivated to squeeze as much out of the short term as possible, to do as many deals in the shortest amount of time,” Ho wrote in 2009. “Just as they begin to witness the failure of their deals in corporate America, bankers leave their jobs, a new cohort arrives, and the question of follow-through is not asked.”
Within roughly a decade of being at Oak Park Trust, my uncle was “consolidating the bank’s accounts and compiling its daily financial reports,” Travis writes. And Dickey would likely have stayed put at the bank for at least another decade if he hadn’t voluntarily moved on to become an executive in his own right.
In a 2014 interview, Sennett mentioned “one example of disposability which wouldn’t come to most people’s minds immediately […] back office workers — in Wall Street.”
These were the “account auditors, people who were reconciling files, lower-level computer information officers and so on,” Sennett said. In other words, this century’s rough equivalents of my uncle.
After the financial crash of 2007-08, those back office workers were unemployed, their “jobs either off-shored to places like Bangalore or Singapore” or “replaced by new technological systems” that were able to reconcile accounts using Big Data.
That Wall Street tendency to treat employees as disposable has now become a staple of our economy across sectors, and it has kicked into overdrive with the onset of the pandemic.
The investment consultant James Rickards is one of the few economic observers who dares to acknowledge that we’re in a depression, but Rickards makes a convincing case for the grim diagnosis in his book “The New Great Depression: Winners and Losers in a Post-Pandemic World.”
“The pandemic was a perfect opportunity for weak businesses to conduct mass layoffs, file for bankruptcy, close locations, or close their doors completely,” Rickards writes, before predicting that “more pink slips are coming” this year, but among “highly paid professionals, including lawyers, accountants, bankers, nurses, real estate brokers, midlevel managers, state and municipal employees.”
How do firms grow and recruit leaders, let alone corporate leaders who are non-white, in this environment?