Lula, center, with hat and necklace on the set of Soul Train. /Submitted photo

Black History Month: Springfield woman overcame workplace barriers

In an interview last June after she was honored by the Springfield Foundation’s African-American Community Family of Funds, Springfield Realtor Lula Cosby told News-Sun columnist Tom Stafford she’d considered writing her life’s story down but hadn’t because it seemed too much like Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She doubted that anyone would be interested.

Today’s article is the third of a four-part series on Cosby, a series that began in the Mississippi of the 1930s, followed the path of the Great Migration to Chicago, and this week continues there as Lula, a single mother, works to establish herself at a publishing house and finds herself on the set of Soul Train.

READ MORE: Stafford: Cosby received grandma’s tough medicine

The night shift at R.R. Donnelly & Sons in the late 1950s and early 1960s was not an accredited business management program. It was a setting with constant pressure to meet the printing schedules for “Time,” “Life,” “Look” and “Sports Illustrated” magazines; Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs; and everything else from National Geographic to phone books for communities coast to coast.

Amidst all the whirring machinery and noise, single mother Lula Cosby became the first minority wage employee tapped for a management position. She made her rounds of the departments, first learning what jobs she hadn’t already been assigned to, then training others in bindery assembly, rotogravure printing, domestic and foreign mailing procedures and other tasks.

The bright young woman who had, only with intervention, claimed her high school diploma, now was learning “to walk that fine line between the company and the workers … how to motivate the latter and draw empathy and compassion from the (former).” For that, she’ll always be grateful to her mentor and department manager, Christine Pacelli.

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As she had when she entered high school, Cosby continued to develop her artist talents. She helped to found the Dancettes, a modern jazz and Afro-American dance group that on weekends shared stages with entertainers including Chaka Khan, Red Foxx, The Manhattans, the Dells, The Chi-Lites, Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis and the Budlanders.

“We choreographed our own dances, made most of our costumes and incorporated comedy skits into our shows,” Cosby said. “We never made a lot of money, but we had a great time.”

RELATED: Black History Month: Springfield woman overcame tough childhood

She later co-founded The Original Old Timers, among the pioneers of Stepping.

The group’s weekly sets drew groups like The Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Drifters and the The Jacksons of pre-Motown days. Group members also appeared on Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train.”

Cosby circulated in controversial circles in Black politics and culture of the time as well, and, in 1965, met Lemuel Austin Taylor, whom she married the next July. Too soon, she said, “We discovered I wanted a house, children and a career (and) he wanted the party to go on forever.”

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Unable to carry them to full term, she felt the loss of three boys at birth and, to cover her hurt, increasingly retreated into two familiar roles: “The strong, carefree person who could handle any situation” and “the quiet survivor.”

“I very seldom shared my bad days or my hardships with anyone, and people thought I was always happy-go-lucky. It was like (being) a duck on the pond: You look smooth on the water, but you’re paddling like hell underneath.”

Through it all, she kept working. In the late 1960s, she and four of her male co-workers at R.R. Donnelly landed a loan and opened Bachelor Quarters, a menswear boutique. She created displays and display windows, once again learning on the job.

“I hammered, painted, salvaged, copied, created and borrowed anything that blended or made a statement with our clothes,” she said.

Her warm, outgoing personality and smile also made her a natural at sales. She worked at the store days and weekends while working her night shift at Donnelly’s.

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All her patience, paddling and persevering seemed to pay off when her son Gordon Christopher Taylor was born Nov. 1, 1970.

She relented to her husband’s insistence that she not return to Donnelly’s to work after the boy’s birth, and another nightmare ensued.

Her relatives, who long since migrated from Mississippi to Louisville, held an annual Derby Weekend reunion, which she was preparing for in 1974 when her husband bowed out at the last minute saying he needed to work on a car. It was, she said, an opportunity for him to “step out.” Having left on Friday, at 2 a.m. a call on Saturday, May 5, informed her he had been shot dead in the company of a female acquaintance after a brief argument with two men. Her shock mirrored a blunt description of her husband’s killing: One shot to the heart with a .22.

“That’s why my feelings are so strong on infidelity,” Cosby said. “I didn’t get married (again) until 1992, because I had to be assured that I would have a faithful mate. I would not go through that again.”

Thirty-four and nursing the emptiness of a failed marriage, a deceased husband and three miscarriages, she rolled the dice and bet on the only one she thought she could truly depend on: herself. Using life insurance proceeds, she made a down-payment on a house for her boys, then 17 and 4, in Chicago’s old Pullman Company employee housing neighborhood. When the real estate agent pointed out “You don’t have a job,” she said, “I will find a way to make my mortgage payments.”

In August of 1975, she responded to a help wanted ad in the newspaper and was hired as a warehouse receiving supervisor with the Drackett Company, a subsidiary of Bristol Myers-Squibb. Cosby said the opportunity came a time of hiring quotas for minorities and in the most challenging of circumstances: on the third shift of a production operation that had no female supervisors and only one other African-American supervisor.

“You know when we hired you, you we never expected you to be successful,” Plant Manager Mel McNeer, later a friend, told her. “When you walked in and saw you had some assistant supervisor experience, minority and female … you were a golden goose for us.”

And as sometimes happens to golden geese, she was given a difficult assignment. “Everybody was afraid of these hourly employees in the warehouse. The leader of the warehouse crew was a man named King, and he gave orders to the crew like he was one. He also had the supervisors in the palm of his hand.”

As Cosby was to discover, many of the palms in the warehouse were being greased to cover up inventory shortages in the thousands of cases of O’Cedar mops and brooms and cases of Windex and Drano.

“I got the crew together and I said, we’re going to start doing inventories weekly or monthly instead of quarterly. I started monitoring it. I did a chart. Then I took it back to the controller.”

After about six months on the job, Cosby was sitting in the cafeteria one night when a large man named Sam Catrano sat down next to her, and another supervisor from a second building sat right across the table from her.

Catrano, who, despite his seniority, chose to work the third shift, “We just want to know, are you going to be with us or against us?”

“He thought that I had already pinpointed where the discrepancies were coming and the finger would point to him and his group,” she said. “I smiled, because I could not let them see me sweat. I told them, ‘I’m going to continue to do the job I was hired to do.’”

Their reply: “You made your bed, I hope you can lay in it.”

Pressure built until the day the personnel manager called and told Cosby to stay in her office, that the FBI was in the building and they’d seized the merchandise the two men had been stealing and selling at a flea market. “They (the FBI) … were arresting these two,” Cosby said. The second man’s wife was particularly cooperative with investigators “because her husband was sleeping with her adult daughter.”

The workers in the warehouse became Cosby’s fans, in part because of other things she had done: letting them come into the office to warm themselves between loading jobs and drink hot coffee and eat donuts she paid for from her own pocket. When the time came, also gave them credit for their work on the inventory reports.

The supervisory positions open because of the arrests gave her the chance to learn how to run the production departments and work overtime for extra money to apply to the mortgage and her children’s needs. Learning that production paid better than shipping, she applied for and got a promotion, prompting her third shift warehouse workers to sign a petition asking that she stay with them.

The next year she became sponge mop supervisor and the year after that plastic extrusion production supervisor. Then came her stint in supervisor training and working with communication, time management, union negotiations and sexual harassment.

That steady rise of a promising career continued until 1982 when more bad news fell into her life: Drackett’s Chicago plant was closing, the work was being transferred elsewhere, and she soon would be out of a job.

It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to Lula Cosby.

Next Week: A final tribute to Henrietta Wells.

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