The Other White Meat
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.'
"I'm standing there and I'm going...This is not PBS. This is 2005. You can't believe somebody would actually say that stuff. This guy sat there and said he was going to string me up and where did I live. And one of the guys told him where I lived. There were five or six people standing around listening. And I said, 'Is he serious?' What bothered me was that they had worked with him for years and they couldn't tell me if he was serious. Around Halloween, he came in and said, 'I'm going dressed up as a 'coon.'"
Meanwhile, the situation was having a painful effect on Lowe's life at home—the thing that had brought him to Worthington in the first place. Rachel didn't always believe the things Lowe was telling her about the plant. And her grandparents, Lowe says, didn't like him to start with. ("They're old-school," he says.) One night in March of 2005, after he and Rachel had an argument, Lowe moved out to his own apartment nearby. When he went back to the townhouse to pick up his PlayStation and computer, Rachel's grandmother called the Worthington police, who arrested him and charged him with theft.
"There was no investigation, or questions, or anything," Lowe says. "They put me in jail, just like that. They tried to put me in jail for 15 years. All this stuff was happening simultaneously, so I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know what I had gotten myself into."
After two more police situations involving Lowe, which he describes as harassment, Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh called a pair of three-hour meetings with Lowe and police brass. Oberloh got wind of Lowe's predicament because the mayor owns an auto parts shop across the street from Lowe's apartment, and the Lowe-Swift situation was making the rounds on the street in town. "The mayor stepped in and put his foot down," says Lowe. "He told me, 'Everything's going to be all right.'" The situation is being examined by an outside police investigator, Sgt. Paula Curry of the Marshall (Minnesota) police department, who, in keeping with police procedure, declined to comment on the case.
In the last two months of his employment, in the autumn of 2005, Lowe's life started to unravel. According to Lowe's court complaint, on October 6, he found a Post-It Note on his desk (see next page) depicting four hooded Ku Klux Klansmen in a circle, peering down. When he asked a friend what the drawing meant, the guy said, "That's the last thing a black man sees before falling down a well."
On October 8, Lowe's complaint charges, he was sitting at the cage parts desk, going over some paperwork when he felt someone's hands squeezing his throat. It was his boss. After Lowe complained about the choking, his boss told the plant's human resources department he "was joking around." That's not how it felt to Lowe.
On October 27, the court papers say, he found a noose on his desk. That's when he blacked out the windows of his apartment. And "because we don't have a union or union rep I could report this to," Lowe says, he contacted a lawyer in Minneapolis he'd heard about from "one of the illegal Mexicans" on the kill floor.
"The company reacted after the lawyers filed the papers," says Lowe. "They started getting rid of everybody who had a past background in discrimination. From what I heard, they fired seven."
The move didn't improve Lowe's situation. Instead, he started receiving anonymous phone calls telling him, "watch yourself." He says that, "several times, they came rattling on my door."
He couldn't call the cops: "After I got harassed one time and called 911," he reports, "one officer told me not to call 911 in this town." He called his landlord instead.
"Some guys would just cruise past and into the property, but this one guy came to the door on two different occasions," says Lowe's former landlord, Larry O'llaughlin. "He said, 'I just want to talk to T-Lowe.' But knowing this individual and his history, I knew it was anything but that.
"I said, 'He doesn't want to talk to you. I suggest you write a letter or have your attorney contact him.' The next time he came, he was beating on the door of Tory's [second-floor apartment], and I went up there to the top of the stairs. I think I brought a baseball bat with me. He said he wanted to make a deal with Tory."
That's when Lowe decided to get out. He left the plant on November 28 of 2005.
"He wants the next person out there to not have to go through this," says Lowe's attorney, Steven Andrew Smith, who specializes in employment discrimination cases at the Minneapolis-based firm Nichols Kaster & Anderson. "What's interesting about this case is, there are cases where there was a noose, or a note, or a threat to kill someone. Or the KKK was brought up, or someone was called a 'nigger' or 'boy' or 'coon.' But it's very unusual to have this broad an array. They seem to have covered the waterfront of potentially offensive racial behavior."
The case is slated to go to trial next March.
Swift spokesperson Sean McHugh says that as a matter of policy, the company will not comment on pending litigation.
Lowe says he spent his last days in Worthington sick to his stomach. He had moved to the prairie town to be with his children, but as the tensions mounted around Thanksgiving, he knew he had to leave. He stayed inside his apartment for the last week and never left, "not even to walk to Wal-Mart," he says. At the beginning of October, Lowe bought a bulletproof vest and slept in it for two months.
Lowe explains: "I said to one of the guys near the end, 'Why is this happening? What is going on?' This is what he told me. He looked straight at me and these are his words, exactly: 'This is the way it is, this is a packing plant, that's the way it always will be, and there ain't nothing I can do to change it.'"
Lowe is speaking by cell phone from Iowa, where he now lives in an apartment with three friends from college. ("I don't want to say exactly where," he says, "because I'm enjoying walking down the street.") He and Rachel are trying to work things out and find a way to be together. He drives from Iowa to Minnesota as much as he can to be with his kids. As of last week, he was unemployed and looking for work. He'd like to find something in radio or other media—he previously worked as a floor manager of the CBS TV affiliate in Madison—so he can put his mass communications degree to use.
"The worst part is, I don't get to see my babies now," he says. "I can't bring my little girl to school now. That's the worst part. I settled down; we were going to get married. Even here in Iowa, I'm more paranoid now. I still got the bulletproof vest. I'm scared for my kids, living in that town.
"I don't know why they didn't like me. I tried to fit in. I made the newspaper for when this lady died in a car accident and her kids needed money. I cooked all day to raise money—over $3,000—for them. I raised over $10,000 in that community for cancer. I played football for them. I was part of the Eagle's Club. I was part of the community. My best friends are white. I went to a white school. I don't know why they didn't like me. You can draw your own conclusions to that. All I know is I wasn't different from anybody else."
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]
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