Sonny Hill rose to the top of his field, when few other people of color could

For Black History Month, we're exploring history and identity through the lens of joy. Black joy is the ability to love and celebrate black people and culture, despite the world dictating otherwise. Black joy is liberation.

Sonny Hill, 80, icon

Being hired by Teamsters Local 169, being the first black in the labor movement in this area in 1960, that was an opportunity to not only represent myself and the union, but to open the door so that others would be able to pass through and not be judged by their ethnicity, but judged by their ability. I felt it was an obligation on my part to make sure I kept the opportunities available for those hopefully to follow.

For me, that was my greatest accomplishment. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the person that opened the door for me was an Irishman by the name of Frank J. Keane. He saw something in me. He gave me the opportunity. I was able to do it for 34 years. And when I retired, I was the secretary/treasurer of my union.

I was originally hired in the union movement as an organizer. And then I elevated myself from an organizer to a business agent. As a business agent, I sat down with companies, corporations, businesses to negotiate contracts and try to provide a decent lifestyle for the members of Teamsters Local 169.

Even to this day, I have people who I represented that I come in contact with that say to me, “Sonny, thank you for all that you did. Sonny, if it wasn’t for you, we would not have had the contract that we had. Sonny, if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have had the working conditions that we had.”

Camera icon Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer

My life has been a wonderful journey, being born in 1936, when a lot of these opportunities were not there for just people in general, and black people in particular. When those doors presented themselves, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, pass through, and carry myself in a manner that would let those who normally would not get a chance to either get to know us or get the chance to interact with us make judgments on the positive side.

Before that, if you were going to be a shop steward, meaning that you’re the intermediary person between the laborers and the company, those were jobs and positions that went to white people. So as people see people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, genders that are able to do things and do it the correct way, it opens the door to the company, the employees and people in general to see positive and then think positive in allowing other people to become a part of.

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