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.”
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.