Richard Polite was born in Charleston in 1951 and raised on Strawberry Lane before his family
moved to Cannon St. near President St. After attending Burke High School, where he played
football, Polite served in the U.S. Army and served one tour in Vietnam. In this interview, Polite
recalls growing up in segregated Charleston and later working at the Naval Shipyard. He
explains why he enjoys the job he has now held for 12 years driving a truck for the City of
Charleston’s environmental services department. The job affords him the opportunity to serve
and interact with the public. Hazardous working conditions and mismanagement have
nevertheless led Polite and many of his coworkers to establish a union this past year. While there
is no shortage of dissatisfaction among his coworkers, fear of losing their jobs in a poor economy
has kept many of them on the sidelines.
For over three months in 1969, four hundred African-American hospital workers from the Medical College of South Carolina and Charleston County Hospital walked off their jobs in protest over discrimination and the right to form a union. The state government and hospital boards argued that workers receiving pay from public funds could not engage in collective bargaining. The hospital strikers were mostly women, some of whom earned below the federal minimum wage; white hospital workers performing the same jobs were paid higher. This interview details the experiences of two women involved in the strike, Mary Moultrie and Rosetta Simmons, and a local civil rights activist who helped organize the strike, William Saunders. Moultrie and Simmons describe the working conditions before the strike and their demand for “respect as human beings.” Saunders remembers the racial tension in the city during the strike, detailing threats made by local officials and the false arrests of activists. All three interviewees report that African Americans at the hospital today are “afraid” to push for better pay and working conditions. Saunders also comments on the fact that “nothing is illegal in South Carolina,” referring to the fact that the state continues to deny public sector workers the right to collectively bargain. The session, which took place at the office of the union representing City workers (Local 1199-Charleston), was part of a Citadel graduate course on local history. Citadel history professor Kerry Taylor guided the initial portion of the conversation and various students followed with their own questions. For additional interviews related to the hospital workers strike, visit the Southern Oral History Program collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.