Miller & Rhoads' Employee Community
Working at Miller & Rhoads was similar to being a part of a family. With as many as seven hundred people working in the downtown store, everything from love and jealousy to hate and friendship could be found among the employees. The founders of the store, along with their successors, strove to create a cohesive employee community based on equality, generosity, and loyalty. As one former employee noted, "these people were some of the most conscientious, most wonderful, caring, and compassionate human beings [she] ever met. As in any workplace, you had your backstabbers, cliques, and snobs. But most of all, it was an environment of friends, family, and teamwork. It was a harmonious melting pot of every race, creed, denomination and personality. There were people freshly hired on their first day and people who had worked there forty of fifty years." All stores have workers, but not all stores have community. What was it about Miller & Rhoads that contributed so much to the formation of an employee family?
On a level concerned only with physical amenities, the final 1941 store edifice itself solidified the infrastructure of an employee community. Beginning in 1918, the store's officers worked to design "physical arrangements in the store for the welfare of [the] personnel" (Rhoads 18). This effort to provide employees with accessible comforts and necessities resulted in an employee cafeteria, a hospital, and a rooftop garden. By 1940, the store featured in addition to the garden "a lounge, with comfortable chairs, a piano, a phonograph and well-stocked library" and "a quiet room with day beds" (Rhoads 18). These other physical amenities served as focal points of accessibility, convocation, and interaction for many employees, whether black, white, male, or female. Away from the selling floor or stock room, personnel could convene in areas open only to the employee population and form bonds not restricted to the realm of merchandise.
Not only did Miller & Rhoads passively encourage community through its architectural design, it also actively maintained and encouraged an employee community through means of various awards, clubs, and activities. In 1902, the store managers organized a Mutual Aid Society aimed to benefit the store personnel. At the time, Absalom Laughon, the store's secretary and future vice-president, served as president of the society, thereby linking a bridge of commonality and community between the executive board and the store personnel. This society of employees of all skill and administrative levels acted on equal footing and evolved into the Miller & Rhoads Employee Association that increased in membership and programming until the store's demise in 1990. The store also printed an employee newsletter, the MirroR, which disseminated store information. More importantly, the MirroR forced everyone to share, at least through the virtue of being informed, in the community because it featured personal employee new such as weddings, engagements, births, etc., in each issue. Through the employee association and the newsletter, Miller & Rhoads linked its personnel together through physical gathering and information distribution.
The partners of Miller & Rhoads held a strong belief in supporting, encouraging, and rewarding their employees. Therefore, beginning in the early 1900's, the store, under Mr. Miller and Mr. Rhoads, Sr. initiated its 20 Year Club. Through this program, employees with twenty years of service gathered for an elaborate banquet in the tea room. However, this recognition banquet was not a one time event; rather, it opened the door to a continual series of gatherings and dinners amidst an ever-growing community. Once an employee made the 20 Year Club, he/she would be in it forever and could come back every year to welcome in each new round of twenty year veterans. Therefore, this continual induction and recognition of employees facilitated community as younger and younger workers yearly joined the ranks of veteran employees. Here, personnel gained membership solely because of work tenure. No one, regardless of race, family background, or economic status, was excluded from the club. With the 20 Year Club, all employees had a common goal which they could all expect to achieve after faithful service to Miller & Rhoads.
After noticing the "colored" section of the 20 Year Club program, one may possibly question how community could have existed amidst segregation. However, a closer look at items such as the 20 Year Club or the MirroR will reveal how, given the constraints of the period in Richmond, Miller & Rhoads actually promoted a combined employee community, not just a white community or a black community. While segregation isolated the two groups throughout Richmond, the two black and white workers existed together at Miller & Rhoads, as evidenced by the inclusive 20 Year Club list. In the MirroR, white wedding announcements were right next to the column of "colored" wedding announcements. Furthermore, the store itself, while segregated to shoppers until 1960, did provide numerous opportunities for black and white employee interaction. In no way was this employee interaction utopian, but it was much more on a racially level playing field than the majority of segregated Richmond afforded at the time.
Complementing its active employee program, the partners at Miller & Rhoads encouraged its personnel by offering numerous activities that facilitated good will and camaraderie. Every year, the store held a catered picnic for its employees, offering a day replete with food, games, music, and solidarity. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Miller & Rhoads even presented extracurricular opportunities to enhance their employees' well being. For many years, the store fielded several employee softball teams that offered more opportunities for gathering together outside of the store.
As the Miller & Rhoads store song stated, "there are stores that have a fellow feeling/ for the ones who work from day to day; and the store where work is such a pleasure/ is the store where you work with me." Through its physical amenities, its employee association, its 20 Year Club, its employee outings, and its store song, Miller & Rhoads believed in and worked towards a close employee community. Indeed, the store succeeded in its goal, as evidenced by numerous examples of employee relationships maintained throughout the years. The death of Absalom Laughon revealed how the store looked upon its workers as family. As the linked advertisement indicates, the partners chose to close the store and pay homage to a respected man who had risen through the ranks as a member of the Miller & Rhoads employee community.
While death linked the community of employees, love also bound together many of the employees. In 1921, Sammie Mehl, then just fourteen years old, went to work at Miller & Rhoads in order to aid her family. The plague that devastated Richmond in 1919 had put her father out of work for two years, so the family needed some income. Miss Mehl started in the stockroom, but eventually wound up selling Frances Denney cosmetics on the first floor. Although her stint in the stockroom was brief, it did allow her to acquaint herself with Richard Duvall. After many lunches in the employee cafeteria, and many courtship outings around Richmond, the two employees married in 1929. Still together today, the Duvalls shared how they had their wedding early in the day so that many Miller & Rhoads employees could attend.
Although Miller & Rhoads no longer exists as a retail business, its employee community remains strong and vital. Countless marriages such as the Duvalls' attest to the lifelong relationships created at Miller & Rhoads. The presence of former co-workers at funerals of former Miller & Rhoads employees also attests to the strength of the employee family. Today, even an official Miller & Rhoads retirees association exists. Every month, between fifty and seventy-five former employees gather for lunch and programs at an Episcopal Church on Monument Avenue. At these meetings, many interesting members such as Jack West, a former manager, and Milton Burke, a former display coordinator, convene to share in each other's company. The group even arranges social and educational outings, and like every family, the relationships among the retirees run the gamut of love, hate, jealousy, and friendship. On a reassuring note as to the integrity of the community, the retirees group encompasses people of both sexes and various ethnic backgrounds. Clearly, Miller & Rhoads provided and continues to provide a familial employee community. As L.M. Childress notes, "Miller & Rhoads was about the people. Each and every individual person. It was about courtesy and respect, no matter who you were. It was about camaraderie, hard work, and having a sense of humor."