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Supervisor threatens to hang worker for drinking from 'white people' fountain

By Faith Karimi, CNN
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Employee records supervisor's racist comments
  • "I need to put a sign here that says, 'White people only,'" supervisor says in a recording
  • Company owner says he was not aware of the discrimination
  • The supervisor in the recording was fired

(CNN) -- The recording sounds like something from Jim Crow days: a white supervisor threatening to hang an African-American employee for drinking water from a "white people" fountain.

But it's 2014, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Untonia Harris, who worked at Atkinson Cotton Warehouse, said he used his phone to record his supervisor after feeling discriminated against for months.

In the audio, Harris asks if he could use a microwave.

Ex-worker: Supervisor said he'd hang me

"Hell no!" a man he describes as the supervisor responds.

When he asks why, the purported voice from the supervisor says it's because Harris is not white.

In another attempt to use the water fountain, the supervisor has the same reaction.

"I need to put a sign here that says, 'White people only,'" the voice says.

Harris asks what will happen if he is caught drinking from the fountain.

The voice replies, "That's when we hang you."

There were other instances, with other co-workers, according to Harris.

"Telling me, 'Black man, don't get on this white man's lift,'" Harris told CNN affiliate WREG.

Another African-American employee, Marrio Mangrum, said he was subjected to racism, too.

"He would be like, 'You need to think like a white man,'" Mangrum told the affiliate.

Mangrum filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January. In it, he said the discrimination occurred between August 2013 and January. He was laid off from his driving job on January 21 and filed the complaint nine days later.

In the audio, the supervisor expresses support for the Jim Crow era between the 1880s and 1960s, when racial segregation and discrimination were enforced in various states.

"Back then, nobody thought anything about it," the supervisor says in the audio. "Now, everybody is made to ... think it's bad."

The owner of the cotton company, E.W. Atkinson, said he was stunned by the recording.

"It's crazy that anybody would think to talk like that nowadays," he told CNN's Victor Blackwell. "It makes no sense whatsoever. You can't even comprehend it."

Atkinson told Blackwell that 90% of the warehouse's employees are black, and that he was unaware of any racism.

"If I heard it, I would have stopped it immediately," he said.

He said his management staff is outsourced to Federal Compress, which hired the supervisor.

In a statement to CNN, Federal Compress said it has a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination, and the supervisor was fired after an investigation.

"Federal Compress very much regrets that the allegations were not reported to it when the first incident is claimed to have occurred," it said.

Harris was also laid off in January.

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CNN's Victor Blackwell contributed to this report.

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