Remembering the Workers of the Domino Sugar Factory
For 20 years, Robert Shelton punched the clock at Brooklyn’s cavernous sugar refinery. Now he’s a docent at Kara Walker’s art exhibit there, sharing with visitors the story of his life.
2737-42. That was the number Robert Shelton punched into a clock at the Domino Sugar factory for 20 years. “As long as you live. You never forget. That’s my number,” Shelton says. And when he returned to the refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for only the second time since the factory closed in 2004, this time as a volunteer for Creative Time’s installation of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” “I had tears in my eyes because it brings back the memories.”
Memories of working the dangerous kiln on a shop floor that regularly reached 140 degrees. Of a hazardous but well-paid union job that enabled Shelton to stop working three jobs, buy his first car, and move his family out of the Roosevelt Housing Projects and into a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone. Of friendships made with the diverse group of Polish, Italian, Caribbean immigrants and other African Americans who also worked at the refinery. Of ongoing labor conflict with Domino Sugar Corporation that resulted in the longest strike in the history of New York City.
Today, with its original brickwork, soaring ceilings, stunning sunlight, and East River views it’s not surprising that the site will soon be a 35-story residential and commercial “megaproject” in the now very desirable Williamsburg neighborhood. The only other time Shelton has been back to the factory since 2004 was a couple of years ago to advocate for affordable housing in the development. “We don’t want luxury apartments,” Shelton says. “Why should someone who has a lot of money come from upstate or from Connecticut and benefit rather than people who have lived there all their life? It has been a long delay because the developers only want to give a small percentage…for regular people like me.”
Shelton is the only volunteer on the floor of the provocative installation who ever worked at Domino’s sugar refinery. Of the several “interpreters” who are on hand to answer visitor questions, his is the only intimate connection to the factory. He found out about the exhibit through an article in the New York Times and knew immediately he wanted to be involved.
Commissioned by Creative Time arts organization, Walker’s “marvelous sugar baby,” a massive “mammy sphinx” fashioned from 40 tons of compressed white sugar, and the coterie of molasses-covered serving boys, have been seen by thousands of visitors over the course of its nine-week run. “A Subtlety” powerfully brings the history and feeling of slavery into the present. Like much of Walker’s similarly themed work, it produces “a giddy discomfort” in the viewer. The Mammy Sphinx wears only a head scarf. Her breasts and labia are massive and exposed, signaling both productive and reproductive labor.
In the vibrant public conversation that has surrounded this exhibit, the factory itself—its history and especially its workers—have become mere backdrop, a focus on plantation slavery unfortunately muting the history of the industrial urban workers who produced the commodity in factories. It’s a history that spanned decades, beginning before the Civil War: The factory complex on the Brooklyn waterfront that now hosts Walker’s exhibit originally opened in 1856. By 1870, it was processing more than half of the sugar consumed in the United States, was rebuilt in 1882 after a fire, and continued to refine sugar until its doors closed in 2004.
Robert Shelton’s story sheds light on this forgotten narrative.
A View From the Kiln
Although born in Brooklyn, Robert Shelton spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between New York and the South. Of African American, Trinidadian, and Native American descent, the fact that there was “no love in the household” where he was growing up and that he attended segregated schools presented formidable obstacles to his education. After years of struggling to make ends meet with part-time, non-union jobs, a woman he met at work recommended him for a job at the refinery in 1984.
“I was the first person of color to work in the engineering office,” Shelton remembers. “I ran into a lot of problems in the refinery among…my own black brothers… the African Americans called me an “uncle tom” and the West Indians called me ‘white jacket, black jacket’. I did what I was told to do…as long as it was right. Uncle Tom is supposed to be someone who kissed butt but I never had to kiss butt.”
Shelton recalls a co-worker who continued to come to the refinery in spite of being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in the hopes of enabling his wife to receive the $ 20,000 death benefit available to families if workers died on the premises. He got his wish.
Harvesting sugar is arduous work and refining it can be deadly. Until 2004, Shelton worked in the kiln department. “Most people who worked in that building have some form of cancer—you’re dealing with acid, lime, particle dust that is so fine,” he said. The kiln area was the third stop for sugar cane in a 12-hour process that produces the white powder in the yellow paper bag that graces kitchen cabinets and pantries throughout America.
“Kiln department was the one no one wanted to work in. The others [I worked with] were one Polish, one Italian, one Indian,” says Shelton. In addition to the temperature being as much as 140 degrees, “once you are on the floor you are there for whole shift. You can’t leave [because] when you are running gas, God forbid that gas would begin to leak, you don’t want that… If the building blows up it would be on the other side of the river in Manhattan.”
In spite of the difficult working conditions, jobs at the refinery remained the best opportunities available for many because of the benefits, which included paid vacation and paid sabbatical every year. Shelton recalls a co-worker who continued to come to the refinery in spite of being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in the hopes of enabling his wife to receive the $ 20,000 death benefit available to families if workers died on the premises. He got his wish.
Domino Factory jobs, the last large-scale factory work in Brooklyn, enabled its unionized workers the ability to raise and educate their children in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg and other neighboring communities that since 2004 have increasingly priced out working class families. During his time at the factory, Shelton and his wife raised Shelton’s stepdaughter and stepson. His granddaughter is now a psychiatrist and alumnus of Clark Atlanta University. In 1999, his family was able to leave the Roosevelt Housing Projects where “you could get killed in the daylight hours. I had to know how fast I could run up the stairs and lock the door, literally.” The Sheltons purchased a home about one-quarter of a mile away from the refinery and furnished it with discarded furniture they found on the Upper West Side and refinished.
Although strikes were common, the conflict that began in 2002 was especially bitter. “The foremen brought in scabs,” remembers Shelton. “I had to throw eggs at the strike and I had to lay in front of the trucks. As the strike went on we began to break. It was hard times…$ 400 a month unemployment…nothing like the $ 1000 a week we were making….bills were starting to back up…I crossed the picket line.” Shortly after the strike was settled, the Brooklyn refinery closed but a refinery in Yonkers remained open. Those who had crossed the line in Brooklyn were rewarded with better jobs in Yonkers.
The refinery’s closure has been difficult for some of Shelton’s friends, who reunited during the Walker installation’s run. “It was very touching. When some of the workers came back with their wives and families…when the refinery closed some men lost their jobs, they had a pension but they became alcoholics because their wives left them, their kids had to drop out of college. If you’ve never been down and have to scuffle and scrape you don’t know how to survive.”
Although now retired from the refinery for more than 10 years, Shelton continues to have powerful feelings about the building and the men and women he worked with there. These feelings are intensifying as the installation’s closing this Sunday and the refinery building’s demolition draw nearer. “I want to be part of the group of people to take the plant down. I’ll push a wheelbarrow I don’t care. For sentimental reasons, that’s all.”
“As July 6 approaches I get sadder and sadder. I’ll never be able to go back there again. You don’t do something for 20 years and forget.”
Robert Shelton will be available at “A Subtlety” to answer questions this Saturday and Sunday.