Samuel Compton Hutchinson, Jr. is the founder and, until recently, president of Interface Construction Corporation. He enjoys piloting airplanes, skiing, hunting, and spending time with his wife, Laurna Godwin, whom he smilingly calls a “warrior woman.” Sam Hutchinson personifies many of the themes in the experience of African-Americans throughout history. He grew up in a segregated community. He valued – and got – a good education. He worked hard to overcome obstacles, and was able to turn an obstacle into an opportunity.
Mr. Hutchinson was too young to be involved in the Korean War, and the years of the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights Movement were filled with working, studying, and, along with his then-wife Gracie, rearing his children, Gerard and Graquel. As a preteen, he picketed twice as part of protests for jobs, but said that his life was not significantly affected by the people or events of the Civil Rights Movement. He did experience racist comments and treatment from teachers and employers, but did not allow himself to be defeated by them. Instead, he has persevered by working hard and acquiring a good education, and, as Booker T. Washington advocated, learned to provide a service the community needed, thereby both setting an example for and offering opportunities to others.
After graduation, young Sam went to Harris Teachers Junior College. Getting an education was important to him; his father had attended Stowe Teachers College and Lincoln University, but quit school to become a mailman when young Sam was born. Harris was a different experience for him; it was integrated. Black students and white students played basketball together, but at lunch black students sat together, and white students sat together. In Mr. Hutchinson’s pre-engineering class of thirty, there was only one other black student. But, these two were bright, and worked hard, and studied together, and two years later four of the original thirty students graduated: two white, and two black.
An oil company representative had come to Harris to recruit students who had two years of study in math and science. Mr. Hutchinson qualified, and was interested, so he took their test (on which he did very well), was interviewed, and was subsequently hired. He spent the next ten years working and going to school, both at Saint Louis University and at Washington University; he was also married during this time.
The universities were desegregated, but Mr. Hutchinson was always the only black student in his classes. The professors were white, and Mr. Hutchinson experienced racism in the classroom. Two examples stand out in his memory. One professor spoke to his accounting class one day about the advantages the students had, being “free, white, and twenty-one in Saint Louis.” Another singled out Mr. Hutchinson during class to ask him why he would want to live in a white neighborhood. Mr. Hutchinson remembers two faculty members who did treat him with respect.
Not only was Mr. Hutchinson always the sole black student in his classes, he was also always the only black engineer in the company’s lab. He was excluded from a company Christmas party because it was held at a country club that did not admit black people. If this did not cause him enough discomfort, a sign at the entrance to the town in which the company’s offices were located read, “Black man, don’t let the sunset catch you here.” Mr. Hutchinson heeded the admonishment.
Mr. Hutchinson endured this disrespect without comment and without retaliation. He reasoned that it made sense to be concerned, not about how others treated him, but about staying on his own path without bitterness. It was a struggle, though; it was difficult for him to maintain confidence in his abilities. In fact, there was a time when Mr. Hutchinson doubted that he was qualified to be an engineer. He decided to be tested to see if he was suited for an engineering career. The test showed that he should be at the top of his class. After that, he stopped having second thoughts, continued to work hard at his job and at his studies, and earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.
One day in 1977, after Mr. Hutchinson had been working at the oil company for over fourteen years and was a field engineer, a man from the company’s corporate office called him for an interview. The man asked, “Where would you like to be in this company?” “I want to be a corporate vice president,” he answered. The man grinned, thinking he was joking, and said, “Be serious!” But Mr. Hutchinson was serious, and he knew from this response that there was a limit to how far a black man could go in the company, and that he did not want to work there any longer.
Soon after this encounter, an acquaintance, a general contractor in the construction industry, approached Mr. Hutchinson with an intriguing proposition. He told Mr. Hutchinson that the industry needed minority-owned construction companies, and said that if he would be interested in establishing such a company, he would help him get started. Mr. Hutchinson discussed it with his wife, and they decided to do it. They started in road construction: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had legislated equal opportunities for minority-owned companies, and affirmative action made sure the equal opportunities did, in fact, occur. He noted with satisfaction, “They wouldn’t make me vice president of their company, so I made myself president of my own company.”
Thirty-four years later, under Mr. Hutchinson’s leadership, Interface Construction has grown to be a well-respected company and is thriving. Management and labor personnel in the company are diverse: black and white, men and women; and respect among these people, and between them and their clients, is fundamental and unquestioned.
In the late nineteenth century, black people were used, and abused, in transportation construction, as virtual slaves in the convict leasing system, to help build railroads across the South. One hundred years later, Sam Hutchinson also became involved in transportation construction. But because he was self-motivated and enterprising, he became involved as founder and president of his own company. He got an education, as W. E. B. Du Bois advocated. He found and filled a need in the community, as Booker T. Washington advocated. Like countless African-Americans who came before him, he did not let racism and denied opportunity discourage him, but persevered and found his own opportunities, and created opportunities for the people he hired. And he built bridges, not only across the Mississippi River between Missouri and Illinois, but across racial lines, between the black and white people who work for, and who are served by, the company he founded.