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Tory Lowe had been on the job at the Swift Pork Company in Worthington for less than a year when he realized he had a fight on his hands. According to court documents that Lowe filed last month, it was April of 2005 when a middle-aged veteran of the plant made a strange announcement in front of a crowd of co-workers in the cafeteria. "I went to a strip club last night and seen some black nigger bitches," the worker said. Lowe was shocked, incredulous even. But then the guy said it again, loudly, and none of the other 15 workers objected. That, Lowe says, is when he knew he was in it alone.
Lowe, who is black and 29 years old, found himself sitting at that lunch table after a tumultuous period that saw him go from single man to newlywed to divorced man and then unmarried father in less then 10 years. In 1995, he received a football scholarship from Iowa Lakes Community College in Esterville, Iowa. His team won the national junior college championship, and he married his high school sweetheart. After having a son, however, the couple divorced. In 2002, Lowe met his now fiancée Rachel and conceived their daughter Toria. Upon the trio's return to Lowe's hometown of Milwaukee, Rachel became pregnant with their son Teyel.
Almost immediately, Rachel, who is white, found city life and Milwaukee's high crime rate to be discomfiting. Lowe, who finished Iowa Lakes with a degree in mass communications, had a good job in Milwaukee with Ace Warehouse. But Rachel wanted to return to her hometown of Worthington, to be close to her maternal grandparents, with whom she had lived after her parents divorced.
In the summer of 2004, Rachel settled in a new and freshly painted three-bedroom townhouse on Darling Drive in Worthington. It rented for just $475 a month. Lowe was reluctant to move to a small town, but he wanted to be with his family. And so he followed Rachel to Worthington, and the couple stuffed the townhouse with kids' toys and furniture from their home in Milwaukee, including a couch, a big-screen television, and a PlayStation.
The biggest employer in Worthington, a town of 12,000 souls that is 80 percent white, is Swift Pork Company. It's a big operation, employing 1,000 workers and processing 20,000 pigs a day on a 16-hour butchering line. In September of 2004, Lowe got a job at Swift.
Upon his hiring, Lowe recalls, he was the first African American to work in the maintenance department, the second African American manager in the history of the plant, and one of only three African Americans then working there. As a result, he was warned that some workers would "make racial comments" and he should "ignore them."
"They gave me the names of the five guys who had problems in the past," says Lowe, by phone from his new home in Iowa. "I said, 'Well, I've got a degree in communications, so that should work out fine.' They said these guys might say something off-color or something, and I just figured the worst thing they could do is yell at me or, 'Gimme my parts.' I just said, 'Okay, no problem.' I've worked. I've never had a problem with people before."
As manager of the third shift, Lowe was responsible for supervising the upkeep of the packing plant's vast mechanical operations. It was up to him and his crew to fix anything that had broken down during the day, to replace parts that had worn out, and to ensure that the slaughter line was up and running for the morning. He worked from the "parts cage," which was connected to a garage-like area of the plant, and sat at a communal desk.
He worked side by side with the 12 to 15 maintenance men on the third shift. But as their supervisor, Lowe also oversaw the workers, mostly farmers who had grown up in the Worthington-Spirit Lake area. Despite their seemingly incongruous city-country backgrounds, the men found a common ground in ribbing each other about their pro-football allegiances: Lowe is a lifelong Packers fan; the Swift guys pulled for the Vikings.
Lowe reports what happened next with great hesitation and more than a bit of incredulity. In November of 2004, one of the workers called him an "ignorant son of a bitch." Lowe responded, "My name is Tory Lowe," and reported the comment to his supervisor. When some of the workers took to calling him "boy," he repeated, "My name is Tory Lowe," and again reported it. Another co-worker said, "How's it goin', nigger?" and some started calling him an "Afroniggercan."
Lowe says the company's non-responses were variations on a theme: "[They] just shrugged it off and said, 'Just give 'em some time. They just need to get used to you.' I did what they told me. They told me to keep telling them what was going on and keep them updated, but it got worse.
"After that [lunchroom incident], it was a nightmare. I was telling them what was going on, and nothing happened. Thinking back on it now, I think they were trying to do something to me. One day this guy who did a lot of stuff—he's a noted redneck—came in and said he was going to bring some Ku Klux Klan members over by my house and rub me out. And that some black guy in the '70s came to town and he ran that guy out. He said, 'That fucker was lucky he got out alive.'
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