Lazarus and the Rich Man

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Hamlet, North Carolina (Luke 16:19-31)

That man dressed fine as Sunday every day
of the week. Owned Imperial Food Products
poultry processors. Had a plant right here
in town. Every morning, early, the workers
would line up at the front gates–mostly women,
mostly black folk, some with joints froze up from
working those machines, some with emphysema
from working the pantyhose factory
down the road, but all wanting their babies
to eat half as good as what sat on that
rich man’s table every evening ’round supper time.
Well, he got to worrying that some folks
might start stealing his chicken parts,
so he took to locking up the factory
doors once the morning shift was in place. The
time came when a hydraulic line blew on
one of the deep-fat fryers and black smoke
filled up the room, followed by grease fire. None of
the state-of-the-art, automatic, carbon
dioxide sprinklers ever came on. Most
folks died at the south end of the building
near the walk-in freezer. They had headed
for the exit, but it was locked. Then they
were drawn on by the gulps of cool air. Some
died down at the loading dock. Piled up on
each other trying to get through the small
hole between the wall and the truck blocking
the platform. There was Mary Alice Whit.
She was dead. There was Peggy Fairley. She
was dead. There was Lillian Mary Wall,
who’d only worked chicken a few months. She
was dead. And Margaret Banks. When
they brought her out, you could already
tell she was dead. All in all, there were 25
who died that day. The Hamlet police lieutenant
said you couldn’t tell whether the bodies
were white or black on account of the smoke; but the
angels, who pay no mind to color, came
and carried every single one of them
up into the arms of Abraham.
Now, all of this happened the day after
Labor Day. And even though Imperial
didn’t allow no organizing in its
plants, the North Carolina Textile Workers
Union still sent dresses (and suits for the
men) to use as burying clothes. At the
First Baptist Church the mourners cried out “Lord,
Lord,” maybe because in the confusion
they had missed the angels. They cried out “Slavery
time’s been over! How much longer is it
going on?” To which there was just no good
answer. What all happened to the rich man
was never much covered in the newspapers,
but the actual truth is
his story’s been told before.

Rose Marie Berger

On September 3, 1991, a fire swept through the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. Twenty-five workers were killed and 55 injured, trapped behind locked fire doors. In 11 years of operation, the plant had never received a safety inspection. Investigators believe a safety inspection might have prevented the disaster. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of Imperial Food; his son, Brad Roe, Imperial’s operations manager; and plant manager James N. Hair were indicted in March 1992 on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Emmett Roe had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside. He received a prison sentence of 19 years and 11 months, less than a year for each person he killed. Roe became eligible for parole in March 1994, and was released just under four years into his sentence.

(Lazarus and the Rich Man by Rose Marie Berger first appeared in Sojourners magazine, August-September 1992)

For more on the Hamlet, N.C., industrial fire, read A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow by Lawrence Naumoff.

See also the University of Virginia “Labor Disasters” web site.

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