Integration pioneer shares life story, lauds opportunity

Integration pioneer Ernie Green weaved his own personal story with the opportunities people have today during Tuesday night’s William M. Factory Small Business Incubator banquet dinner at the Tacoma Sheraton Ballroom.

Green, one of nine students who first integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. after the Supreme Court declared segregation illegal, was the featured speaker at the dinner.

“It seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?” Green asked, referring to a time when blacks weren’t accorded the same rights as whites.

The 61-year-old Green recalled that as a a 6-year-old boy he was prevented from getting a drink on a hot summer day, because he attempted to use a water fountain designated for whites only.

He and his father – a World War I veteran – were turned away from a public park, and his grandfather was prevented – at gunpoint – from voting, Green added.

Though times have changed for the better, Green pointed out vestiges of the past still pop to the surface every now and again, including remarks made by Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott late last year indicating he favored segregation.

The resulting controversy cost Lott his position as Senate Majority Leader.

“That’s why I’m here today,” Green said, to make sure there isn’t a return to the so-called “good ol’ days.”

Green and eight classmates became the first black students to attend Central High School in 1957, the result of the now famous “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision by the Supreme Court in 1954.

That decision struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, paving the way for integration in the nation’s schools.

“I’ll never forget that day,” Green told the audience, recounting entering the school under the protection of the 101st Airborne Division, made necessary by the fact then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus refused to desegregate the schools, going so far as to call out the National Guard to prevent black students from attending.

Alluding to the presence of the paratroopers for their protection, Green said he told a fellow black student, “I guess we’re getting into school today,” eliciting a laugh from the crowd.

After graduating from Central High School, Green went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University.

He is an investment banker and managing director of Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C.

Green was an assistant Secretary of Labor during the Carter administration and chairman of the African Development Foundation during the Clinton administration.

“What you’re doing here is improving people’s options,” Green said of the William M. Factory Small Business Incubator, which assists in the growth of disadvantaged companies and the employment of local residents.

The Factory Small Business Incubator currently represents 22 businesses.

The success of the Factory Small Business Incubator shows the positive change the civil rights movement has made, Green said, benefiting everyone, not just blacks.

“This is a program Republicans and Democrats can both support,” Green said, noting that with the explosion of high technology jobs and the ever-expanding Internet, education plays a prominent role in today’s employment.

“In Act 2 of the civil rights movement, the key is education,” he said. “Now we need education more than ever.”

The William M. Factory Small Business Incubator, one of the first in the nation, is currently constructing its own building near Interstate 5 and Portland Avenue.

The $3 million facility will be equipped with over 100 workstations, high speed Internet access and an expert staff with specialized services for startup companies.

Construction is expected to be completed this September.

William M. Factory, who passed away eighty years ago this March 17, was well-known for his contributions to the Tacoma community for over 40 years, as a volunteer and founding and active member of numerous civic organizations.

He was co-founder and president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Small Business Incubator, which received a 1988 “Neighborhoods USA” national award.

“My father would have been very, very proud to see that his life has made such a difference in living conditions,” Michael Factory, Jr. said. “He wanted to improve the living conditions of each and every person in the community.”