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  • Writer's pictureJohn Thomas

The Difference a Job Makes!

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

James DeBerry broke into the middle class at Swift!

James DeBerry in the 1970's pictured at his Swift work station!

When we installed the pictures outside of the Swift Factory’s Building 3 during our pre-development phase, we wanted to remind passersby that, not long ago, people actually worked here. And, we were committed to bringing that work back to Swift again.

And, one of the pictures got quite a bit of attention. It was of a man—a Black man—sitting at work station number 9, his intense gaze seeming to question why he was being distracted to take a picture. His gaze was familiar in North Hartford, hardened by years in the South and betraying decades of struggle and a laser focus on securing success. It commanded respect.

But, when Crystal DeBerry rounded the corner on Love Lane and his gaze caught her attention from that boarded up window, something deeper than respect was her reaction. It was unmistakeable, overwhelming and undeniably the gaze of her father, James DeBerry. "I had to pull over. I had never shed a tear over my father dying. But, seeing that made me shed a tear. I went home and and got my kids,” DeBerry said. Once processing the initial shock, she said she felt intense pride. "They must have really thought a lot about that man to have a picture of him at his station. I brought my grandkids by to see it. When my relatives came from down South, I brought them to see it. It made me feel so proud. He was so serious about his work at Swift.”

James DeBerry worked at the Swift Factory for over 18 years, carving out a middle-class existence but, according to his widow Pearleana DeBerry, the position capped off years of struggle. I caught up with her after she had dodged Covid sickness after being released in 2019 from the hospital for a blood clot, her voice compelling me to question whether she was much younger than her 85 years as she told their story.

James DeBerry was born the eldest son of a sharecropping family. Having had to leave school to help his family in the fields, finding himself behind a mule plowing the fields of Bennettesville, South Carolina at 8 years old.

A few years later, DeBerry would move to Southern Pines, North Carolina with his grandmother, soon after meeting and marrying his wife Pearleanna. It was the 1950’s and the area was a national golfing hot spot with resorts, hotels, and a golf course industry providing ample job opportunities.

DeBerry secured employment, first in a Drug Store and then at the golfing resorts, but his expanding experience and interactions with Northerners left him wanting much more . Like many of his southern colleagues, he was always alert to hear of news of opportunities "up North" from his patrons.

"He had a way with people, the way he spoke to them. He got along well with all the performers who came to entertain. He was always good with people and connected with them," she said. And, when one of those Northern acquaintances told him about opportunities in Hartford, he was off to realize them.

In 1956, James and Pearleanna DeBerry arrived in Hartford. Pearleanna was pregnant with their first child and James secured a job at Aetna as an elevator operator. But, that job was not going to do. “Insurance companies had good benefits, but they did not pay much at all. We were struggling when we first got here,” DeBerry said. Friends supported them with a lead on a job with better pay. “They told him to try and get a job at Swift. You could not advance, but for someone with no training and no education, it was a good job,” she said.

And he got the job just in time. “I was 20 years old. I had one child and one child on the way. For the first 20 years of our lives in Hartford, I did not have to work. I was home with children. But, we could buy groceries, pay our rent,” she said. And, the job at Swift even allowed him to indulge in one of his greatest passions—cars. "He loved Mercurys. And that friend of his, John Thomas, lived on Earl Street at the same time. They would go up to I-91 before it was open and drag race. I was so worried,” DeBerry said. “I remember those arguments. If John lost, he had to work on my husbands car.”

After living on Belden Street, Clarke Street, Love Lane and Earle Street, the couple sought to move where their children would have better opportunities. After being “redlined” out of Farmington and Simbsbury, they moved to Bloomfield in 1960 and to Windsor in 1963 where they would raise 8 children. It was here that daughter Crystal saw her father at his best.

“I will never forget his advice that if we respect anybody, it better be ourselves. He was brilliant, a self-taught mechanic who was a tough, silent storm, but that voice of his boomed when he wanted it to,” she said, remembering that the house had to be immaculate and her brothers lived a highly regimented life that led them to successful military careers.

Many Southerners who migrated North with DeBerry may have been happy with a steady manufacturing job, but James DeBerry had a bit more to give. After 18 years at Swift, he left his job and started his own filling/auto repair station on Hardin and Blue Hills Avenues in Bloomfield. He left to go into business for himself and got a service station and garage on Blue Hills Avenue, right across the street from Hardin Avenue. We call it a start up these days. “He gave it a try. He operated that for 1 year. I told him there was no way you could have drug me out of Swift. You gotta have a paycheck coming in in the first year or two,” DeBerry said. After the business failed, he went back to work and Pearleanna began a career at the City of Hartford Board of Education and at the Fred D. Wish School. “Though we no longer lived in Hartford, we worked in Hartford, went to church in Hartford and we came back to Hartford daily,” DeBerry said. “That’s something we did. We came back.”

Crystal DeBerry has reconnected to many of the memories her dad left when he passed away from Cancer in 1998. One memory is especially tied to the Swift Factory. “I remember in the summers we would ride with him to work. Our car would be the first one in Swift’s parking lot without fail. If you were 15 minutes early with that man, you were late. He wanted to be ahead of things...prepared,” she said.

Mrs. Pearleanna DeBerry continues to serve as Matriarch of her family with her 8 children, 15 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. And, we at Swift only hope to impact lives through employment in the way that one job at Swift impacted the lives of generations of the DeBerry family.

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