Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Tireless Activist for Workplace Civil Rights
Reverend Dr. Leroy Ellison, Sr., a quiet and easygoing man, successfully led the fight to end racial and gender discrimination in employment in Rock Hill from 1966 to 1980.
Rev. Ellison was born in Winnsboro, SC on February 28, 1924. In 1942, he moved to Rock Hill. He lived there with his wife of 72 years, Mattie Watkins Ellison, until his death in 2013.
From February 11, 1954 until his retirement in 1989, Rev. Ellison worked at the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Company, a massive textile plant known locally as the “Bleachery.”
The Bleachery maintained production departments that were segregated on the basis of race and gender. When employees were hired, assigned, promoted, or demoted, they were placed in a job that was classified as either a "white job" or a "negro job;" a “man’s job,” or a “woman’s job.” African Americans were assigned to the hardest, dirtiest jobs, and were systematically paid less than white workers on every job. Even when black workers did "white jobs," the jobs were reclassified as black jobs in their employment records, and they were paid less than white employees for the same work.
In 1966, when Rev. Ellison realized that the Bleachery was not complying with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and was given the right to file a federal employment discrimination action against the Bleachery. Rev. Ellison filed a class action lawsuit in 1972 and became the lead plaintiff against the Bleachery. The federal court hearing the case entered a consent decree on May 27, 1975 giving Rev. Ellison and his fellow complainants all that they demanded from the Bleachery. Though the Bleachery made an appearance of complying with the court’s consent decree, discriminatory schemes were regularly employed to protect pre-lawsuit “white privileges” and to discharge black workers seeking “white jobs” at the Bleachery. Rev. Ellison fought against such schemes and prevailed in each instance. By 1980, black workers had finally acquired equality of opportunity and parity with white workers at the Bleachery.
On several occasions during the course of Rev. Ellison’s civil rights work, individual whites threatened to kill him. The Ku Klux Klan also threatened to lynch him during this time. These were not empty threats, for during this period in America’s history, homicidal whites and the Ku Klux Klan routinely burned and bombed both occupied and unoccupied black churches and homes, and murdered black civil rights leaders with little fear of retribution.
Reverend Dr. Leroy Ellison, Sr. taught that the fight for justice and equality should be done without need of public acclaim or fanfare, and without anger or malice, but with steadfast determination and love. When talking about his civil rights efforts some decades later, Rev. Ellison said, “I didn’t just do it for me, I did it for the people who were coming after me. I was not trying to hurt anybody. There was no hurting in my reasoning. It was to better our conditions. I thought all the time I was right.” And, of course, he was.