Manufacturing Helped Darrell Rideout Build a Good Life, But He Worries About “What My Kids Will Have to Go Through”

By Jeffrey Bonior
Darrell Rideout, right, estimates that about 80% of people on the factory floor where he works are Black, but management at the facility is white. “Sometimes people just don’t want to push the matter, but it is a very serious problem,” he says. | Photos courtesy Darrell Rideout

In many ways, the United Steelworkers member has achieved the American dream. But being Black means Rideout and his family still deal with racism.

Darrell Rideout was born and raised in Chester, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb once renowned as a wealthy manufacturing community.

But Chester lost its manufacturing might during the 1960s. Major companies abandoned the small city, which is located about 30 miles south of Philadelphia. By the 1970s and 1980s, Chester’s misfortunes had turned the city of 34,000 residents into the one of the poorest communities in Pennsylvania.

While much of the manufacturing industry may have given up on Chester, Rideout did not give up on manufacturing. Even after attending college for three years on a soccer scholarship, Rideout decided to pursue a career in the field.

After all, manufacturing was deeply embedded in both the storied history of Chester and the Rideout family. Rideout’s father is a recently retired Black Methodist Bishop, who oversaw 35 churches in the Philadelphia area. But he also worked as a crane operator at Chester’s famous shipyards, which built tankers and many military vessels during World Wars I and II. His grandfather also was a welder at the shipyards.

Rideout has spent the past 20 years working at WestRock, a paper-making conglomerate that boasts 36 mills and 76 converting companies globally. He is an EVOL box-making machine operator at the WestRock converting plant in Aston, Pa., a burgeoning suburb located just a few miles from Chester.

Rideout operates and programs a $7 million machine that takes paper and converts it into folding boxes. You know that Amazon box that came with your online purchase order? Well, there is a good chance it was created on Rideout’s machine. His one machine can create approximately 100,000 boxes during his daily eight-hour workday shift.

Operating the EVOL box-making machine is one of the most prosperous jobs on the production floor, and Rideout is thankful that the manufacturing industry is still able to provide well-paying, benefit-friendly jobs to members of the Black community. He estimates that 80 percent of the production workers are Black, but frets that management is lacking in diversity.

“I don’t think the company puts an effort behind it to make management more diverse,” said Rideout, who is also the shop steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 286 and represents the 130 production workers on the factory floor. “Once you get a segment of people they like and they deal with it, it makes it easier for them. You are going to see that almost everywhere you go.

“It’s like kids sitting in the cafeteria at school. They sit in certain groups that they are just comfortable with.”

“My son drives now, and my wife and I have to talk to him and teach him certain ways. I asked my neighbor, ‘has your son ever been stopped by the police or accused of doing this or that?’ And he said no. But his son is white and the same age as my son.

“These are the extents that most white people don’t get.”

Darrell Rideout

But when it comes to his family and homelife, Rideout and his wife are trying to bring as much diversity as possible to their 18-year-old son and 13-year old daughter.

The family lives in Middletown, Del., an upper middle-class community about 45 miles from his job in Aston. His manufacturing work and his wife’s career in banking afford them the opportunity to own an upscale, four-bedroom house far from the daily hardships found in Chester.

“I live where I am living at because I wanted my kids to have a little perspective and a little diversity while they are growing up, and not just be in an all-Black neighborhood,” Rideout said. “My neighborhood down here is a development and it is very diverse. White, Black, Chinese, Indian people.

“But when you are dealing with the company, even for us out on the floor, you are pretty comfortable, but if you are in the office with an all-white group that is going to make them comfortable. Sometimes people just don’t want to push the matter, but it is a very serious problem.

“You’ve got 80 percent of the guys on the production floor that have hit their ceiling already, and there is no room for them to move up and improve their life. But for a guy just starting out – don’t get me wrong – you are going to make $45,000 to $50,000 if you just come to work. So, a lot of people get satisfied with that. That’s the mentality they have for management and somebody has to shake it up.”

Rideout has shaken things up in his own life by also buying and restoring houses for a handsome profit. His hard work, combined with overtime hours, has made it possible for his family to live a more financially stable life.

“Manufacturing has been very good to me and my father always preached to work hard, and you will get what you want,” he said. “I have been blessed.”

Above: Rideout with his son. Below: Rideout with his daughter.

But being a successful Black man in America can have its drawbacks in a world that is increasingly judgmental about racial matters.

“I used to live in Secane, Pennsylvania, which is a small, white community near the plant in Aston,” Rideout said. “I lived two miles from where I worked at, and the exact same cop would stop me every three or four weeks and tell me I fit the description of someone that just robbed a store up the street. He would tell me the same story, and wouldn’t even recognize me except that I was Black. So, I had to let him know how he stopped me several times before and said the same thing.

“I drive a nice car, and you see me coming through there and you see that I am Black, so I got pulled over.

“Down here in Delaware – and I’m not saying it’s any different than anything else in the world – but I have two state police officers, a Philadelphia policeman and a retired policeman, that are my neighbors. So, I have their phone numbers on my speed dial right now and if I get stopped by a cop now, I have one of them on the phone before the cop gets up to my car.”

Rideout feels there needs to be a change in the culture of much of law enforcement and the general attitudes white people harbor about Black Americans.

“Even if you have to do something as police with someone who broke the law, it has to be dealt with in a safe manner,” he said. “Not in an aggressive manner where I am fearing for my life all the time. Even in the job that you are in, if you sign up to be a police officer, protect and serve and do all that, some of that comes with the job.

“You can’t be terrified of every Black man you come in contact with. Because if you look at them as a person, they are just trying to get home, too and be with their family. Sometimes you have to make arrests and sometimes people deserve to be arrested, but if you can’t deescalate the situation, then you don’t need that job.”

Growing up in hardscrabble Chester, Rideout learned compassion from his preacher father, and is trying to pass the love down to his two children. His son is in his senior year of high school and is a member of the honor society, but Rideout fears for him and his daughter’s future as young Black teenagers.

“I have white neighbors and Black neighbors and my son from the time he was 14 years old has been stopped, had the cops called on him, stopped inside of stores maybe five or six times,” Rideout said. “This is my son who is a straight A student, with a 4.6 grade-point average, a member of the Honor Society, SSA (Safe School Ambassador), in the band, a community activist and he never had a situation in his life but as a Black boy turning into a Black man he has been stopped so many times just in the area where he lives as though he shouldn’t be here but has every right to be here.

“My son drives now, and my wife and I have to talk to him and teach him certain ways. I asked my neighbor, ‘has your son ever been stopped by the police or accused of doing this or that?’ And he said no. But his son is white and the same age as my son.

“These are the extents that most white people don’t get. Your son is not going to get stopped and be suspicious of causing trouble. Even through I am living here and doing the best that I can for him, he still has to succumb to some of those prejudices. It’s crazy and it’s not fair.”

Rideout with his wife.

Rideout supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but worries it is being tarnished by the small group of rioters that disrupt the peaceful protests.

“I do see a momentum change in the movement, but I don’t know how it’s going to end,” he said. “I feel there is a different feel to it this time with all the diversity of all the protestors and marching, but I wish it was with a platform that didn’t focus on the looting and rioting as a deflection, because that is what they use it for.

“It’s funny how people see things, because it is just plain and simple. Before people didn’t want to hear it but maybe it started after seeing this George Floyd thing, and something is right there, and you have to see the racism. It is right there for everyone to see, so people are starting to think, ‘maybe I should listen to this or maybe there is something to it.’ That’s what people are feeling now. People are at least trying to figure it out now.

“My worry is what my kids will have to go through. The younger people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are the ones that are going to hopefully make these changes.”

And as the shop steward at the WestRock plant, Rideout tries to impart his basic values on the younger generation.

“What I try to do for the young people that come into the plant is I try to turn them to the pension plan and the 401k because a lot of these young guys will come there and they are making money and they are not worried about benefits and health care,” Rideout said. “They are just running and running and wasting a lot of that good money they are making, but they could be so much further along when they get in their 50s and 60s.

“That’s my part of manufacturing and the union work that I try to do.”

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series of interviews with Black factory workers about racism in the United States and their experiences in the manufacturing industry. If you or someone you know would like to take part, please email [email protected].

See the previous entries: After Facing Racial Discrimination at His Paper Mill, Alex Perkins Sprung Into Action; No Stranger to Adversity, Syracuse Steelworker Keith Odume is an Advocate for Change; Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist; and As a Black Woman in a Factory Dominated by White Men, Monica Mabin Faced Double Discrimination.