Shared from the 2/28/2019 Beaumont Examiner eEdition

Black History Month 2019

A.B. Bernard: Trailblazing equality

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A.B. Bernard

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A.B. Bernard’s yearbook photo from the ‘50s

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A.B. Bernard’s graduation photo from Charlton-Pollard High School

A.B. Bernard was raised in a time of segregation. Though in a time of division, his is a story of crossing lines – a story of equality. Born and raised in Beaumont, Bernard had few options growing up.

“Although we were very ambitious in what we wanted our future to be like, our options were very limited in what our careers could be like,” Bernard explained.

He may have been unsure about his future, but he never let it terminate his love of building.

“I always wanted to build things,” Bernard said. He explained how his love of creation and art permeated his outlook on building not only physically, but also socially. “The way I dealt with art became, unknowingly, my foundation of who I became later as a person.”

His love of creating worked as a complementary force to his work ethic and helped him throughout his career. Unfortunately, once he was married after high school he found himself without many prospects.

“Once I got married, I didn’t have a very good job. One day I decided to try to get a better paying job and I went out to the shipyard, which at that time was Bethlehem Steel and Shipyard,” Bernard said. “I would go out there every day. I was a puny-looking guy and the only thing available at the shipyard at that time was the job in the labor gang. So, being a very skinny guy they didn’t necessarily kill for someone who didn’t have some muscles.”

While his stature may have been a hindrance, his persistence paid off.

“For nearly two weeks I would go out there every morning and get in the group at the gate (holding) my hand up so that I could get called to be sent down to the labor gang,” Bernard explained. “So, about that second week, the security guard who would always pick people picked me that day. He said, ‘You’ve been coming out here every day. You can go on down.’”

Once picked, Bernard went down to the personnel office where he went to the window on the outside of the office and gave his name, social security number, address and phone number, while he noticed his white counterparts walked inside and filled out an application. “That particular day, I went straight to work.”

Throughout his experience in the “labor gang,” the physical workforce of the shipyard, Bernard always did one thing – worked hard.

“At that time, the culture (for) anyone working on the labor gang was that you worked hard or you wouldn’t be there very long, and I worked hard,” Bernard said. “I was the youngest guy in the group. Everyone else was older. I had a high energy level. I would help them if I saw them carrying something too heavy or doing something. I would always try to help them so they could keep their job.”

While the pay was improved as time went by, Bernard knew he always wanted something better for himself.

“I worked extremely hard and then later I decided to go to night classes out at Lamar Tech for drafting and design. So, I was attending school at night,” Bernard admitted.

Unfortunately, others did not see it the same way, according to Bernard.

“One day, a very troubling day, my supervisor called me to his office and he said, ‘I understand that you are going to school at night.’ And I told him, ‘Yes.’ And being the respectable young lad I always tried to be, I thought he was interested in the fact that I was going to school at night.” That was not the case. What followed was a choice for Bernard to either continue working for the shipyard on nights as a painter or quit. Bernard chose employment.

“I ended up going on nights, not painting one ounce of paint in six months,” Bernard said. “And they brought me back on days and put me in sand blasting.”

While the work was difficult, fortune smiled on Bernard.

“I was walking down the street of the facility and the assistant manager who had heard about me called me over and asked me, what was I planning to do with my life? And I told him what I was trying to do and I dropped out of school and he said, ‘But why?’ And I was afraid to tell him,” Bernard recalled. “Through the grace of God he said, ‘Come and see me tomorrow.’ And I did.”

Little did Bernard know that this meeting would be the start of a career he could never imagine and allow him to cross a line none had crossed in his place of work before.

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A.B. Bernard (center right) meeting with his team at BGI Contractors

“When I walked in with my old, dirty coveralls, the secretary said, ‘A.B., we were expecting you.”’ From there Bernard was sent to the personnel office, Bernard explained. “I will never forget when I went to personnel, I went to the window, because that’s where colored people went – to the window. And they said, ‘you can come around.’ And I went around, (but) I stood back and they said, ‘Come on in,’” Entering into the office would be the turning point in Bernard’s trailblazing career.

From there, Bernard was offered a job to be a draftsmen within the engineering department.

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A.B. Bernard (center) presenting with fellow executive candidates

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A.B. Bernard (second from the right, second row) poses with fellow Bethlehem Steel leadership.

“During that time, the only thing that a person of color did in that facility, as big as it is, is either work in the labor gang and painted in certain areas, or you were a janitor or a chauffeur – that’s it,” Bernard explained. “I was the first African-American to actually work in an office.”

While he made great strides in his career, there were still trials. Facing ostracization from his colleagues for almost a year made his work very difficult. While the road was arduous, his workmates eventually acclimated and success would find Bernard once again.

“Another year passed by with good communication, and I was growing. I had several projects that I completed, (which) were very successful,” Bernard said. “One day … everybody was turning and looking at me and I didn’t realize. When I looked up I saw it and I turned to see what they were looking at and the assistant manager was approaching me from behind.”

Bernard was then offered the opportunity to train as a superintendent and, while hesitant, took the job. He moved from department to department and eventually was put in place as a superintendent.

“I went to another department as a superintendent and my career just took off,” Bernard explained. “And the same person who put me on nights – I became his boss… He really couldn’t handle it, so he retired.”

Some would view his position as the height of their career, but Bernard’s work ethic and skill would lead him to be inducted into a corporate training program. This program took him through every aspect of the business where he would eventually find himself as a senior superintendent. From senior superintendent, Bernard received a special position in corporate personnel, where he would oversee all hiring and firing throughout the company. Through this position, he sought to assure those hired were impartially hired based on skill alone – true equality.

“It doesn’t matter what color you are…. If you want things equal, then everybody needs to be equal,” Bernard said.

His time in corporate would evolve, and he would eventually leave the company where he would start multiple businesses, two of these being very successful, including United Marine Shipyard and BGI Contractors. Through his time as president and manager of operations of his own businesses, Bernard always believed in his personal responsibility to his employees and the business itself. He always tried to promote those he saw potential in as he himself was promoted before, regardless of race.

“Because of the way I came up, I tried to make a difference in everybody’s lives,” Bernard said. “White people, black people and Hispanics had opportunities with me.”

Besides his time in business, Bernard has also served on many boards, including the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont Chamber of Commerce and Christus Health Foundation. Today, he serves as president of the board for Beaumont Independent School District, which he was appointed to after the previous board was dismissed, and was instrumental in the financial improvements made by the school district in recent years.

Though Bernard faced many trials and tribulations, he never wanted it to define him. Instead, he sought to reflect on his success in appreciation.

“It was such an extraordinary life, not just because it was mine,” Bernard recalled. “It was a trying, but extraordinary time.”

See this article in the e-Edition Here