Tough Times For Black American Small Businessmen

17 Aug

Yeah, I know… Times are tough all over. Never ceases to amaze me the dichotomy of “Home for Sale” signs, foreclosures, and boarded up houses and the folks walking out of the Mall with armloads of “bargains”.

Lobloly Pine Trees, Common to Tidewater Virginia

Lobloly Pine Trees, Common to Tidewater Virginia

Anyway, one of my Uncles on my Mother’s side was a lumber man. He owned his own portable mill, bought the land, planted the trees, and employed over a dozen men to cut, trim, load, and finish cut the timber before shipment. Some of his timber went to a pulp mill, to make paper.  Some went to make framing lumber, and some special runs went to a guy nearby who hand built wood luxury yachts cut as keel and rib strakes. I would go and visit with my Uncle, who lived in the southeastern part of Virginia several times a year, and as a small child have fond memories of the smell of fresh cut wood which seemed to follow him home from work.

So this story really sparked my interest, and the pictures aren’t much different than if they had been taken of my Uncle and his family.

Waiting for Work In the Silent Woods

CAMDEN, Ala. — Clarence “Sunnyman” Primm figures there are more than 70 people connected with the lumber industry in these parts who know how to reach him on his two-way radio. He loves the crackling sound of the thing. Because when a call comes in, when the buzzing pierces his blue shirt, when that scratchy human voice reaches out to him, it’s often a work order. And then Sunnyman circles his beefy arm in the air — as though he were twirling an invisible rodeo rope — and says, “Let’s go.” And he and his men are off, rolling through the thick woods of southwestern Alabama.
Sunnyman has known these woods since childhood, and he wants to keep clearing them.

“But the dang thing ain’t been ringing,” he says of his two-way, standing in the forest with his assembled crew of five men at the beginning of a workweek.

There’s gospel music humming from a radio. The morning sun has long been up. It’s slicing through the trees. Sausage links are frying on a nearby grill. Food and church harmonies to bracket this idle time.

Here stand John Lee Benjamin, 55; Danny Holloway, 28; Johnny Neal, 43; Clarence Tait, 62; Paul Davis, 46; and Sunnyman, 53.

Last year, Sunnyman’s company, C & C Logging, grossed $1.6 million. That’s millionaire status, and Sunnyman felt mighty proud, even though, after paying wages, insurance, fuel costs and the debts on his equipment loans, he ended up with only $35,000. That year, the year before the recession fully arrived in these woods, was rough enough. “This year,” he imagines, “I might make a third of that.” …

“He ain’t quit,” Holloway says of his boss.

Everyone concedes that the days they’ve gone without work in May, June and July have been difficult.

“I thought I was gonna starve to death,” says Davis.

“I got a wife,” says Holloway. “I got a brand-new truck. And when we have to stay off a week at a time, I’m telling you, it hurts.”

“I got four young kids,” says Neal, digging his heels into the soft dirt.

“These last two to three weeks been rough,” adds Davis.

“You mean months!” Neal pipes in.

“Shoot, go back to Christmas,” says Benjamin. “Wouldn’t have been for Sunnyman, we wouldn’t have had any Christmas.”

“He put a turkey on the table and a couple dollars in our pockets,” says Neal.

Sunnyman slouches off toward a big tractor, checking its wheels.

“Wasn’t for Sunnyman,” Neal goes on, “whew, I’m telling you. We didn’t have but two days’ work last week and he still paid us.” For the whole week.

That’s what they say about Sunnyman, and this is what he says to them on the hard side of an afternoon hours later: “Ya’ll may as well go on home. Ain’t gonna be no work today.”…

He’s on the outskirts of Camden, a small town of 2,500 or so residents, musing about the collapse of the lumber industry.

Experts say the downturn in the industry is cyclical, that it will come back around. It has been estimated that since the 1990s, this region has lost upward of 10,000 jobs in textiles and manufacturing to cheaper sites in Mexico. Unemployment in this area hovers at 22.5 percent. Alabama is the second-largest commercial wood-producing state in the nation, next to Georgia. The mills typically employ foresters who find landowners who want timber cut from their woods. Then the mill hires a logger such as Sunnyman, who is now saying, “I like being outdoors,” the Alabama wind on his face.

“I used to sell timber to six mills within a 100-mile radius of here,” he says. “But in the past year, three of those mills have closed. Harrigan Lumber, Browder Veneer and Weyerhaeuser. All those places took wood from me. It’s put the squeeze on me, I’m telling you.”

His truck’s rumbling down a two-lane road in the direction of Monroeville. “When fuel went high,” he goes on, “it about drowned all of us. We can’t waste no money now. Why ain’t we working today? The mills shut down, and until the price of timber and logs come down, no one wants to sell it.”

Guys like Sunnyman are my personal heroes. They are the guys who make this country work, and they, as a group employ more than 3/5ths of all Americans. When the conservative politicians in this country want to favor the big companies, these are the guys who usually wind up getting screwed – to the detriment of the whole country.

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Posted by on August 17, 2009 in General


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