American Experience
Early Years: Pivotal Decisions
Pivotal Decisions: Higher Wages or a Better Classification?

Nashville, 1936
Six years after beginning his work in Dr. Blalock's lab, Vivien Thomas becomes frustrated that he is being paid a low wage while performing a technician's work with increasing responsibilities. He also discovers that Vanderbilt officially classifies him as a janitor. Seeking a fair resolution, he confronts Blalock with the issue.

Although Thomas felt fortunate to be steadily employed, he was still eager to earn a higher salary. The 1930 failure of Nashville's Peoples Bank had wiped out Thomas' college savings, leaving him angry and confused. By 1934, Thomas had married and was supporting a family. He continued working with Blalock, occasionally picking up carpentry work for additional money. In the years that followed, Thomas often discussed salary with Blalock and even threatened to leave Vanderbilt for better pay. Blalock had apparently found in Thomas the kind of skilled assistant he needed and persuasively negotiated to keep Thomas with the lab.

Thomas and his colleague James Lewis became curious about their job classification and pay at Vanderbilt. Discreet inquiries soon revealed that a white man working in a similar university position was classified as a technician. Upon further investigation, Thomas discovered that "all colored men were classified as janitors" by the business office. Thomas presented Blalock with this information and told him that he should be reclassified as a technician and receive commensurate pay for the work. Expressing a little surprise, Blalock said he would look into the matter.

Select one of these three choices:

Choice 1
Blalock should tell Thomas that neither a raise nor a reclassification is possible.

Money is always tight in Blalock's department. Regardless of the inequity, Thomas should be satisfied with having a good job.

Choice 2
Blalock should quietly lobby for a new job classification for Thomas.

Although he can't do anything about the money, Blalock could probably influence the decision about Thomas' job title.

Choice 3
Blalock should look for more money for Thomas.

Thomas has proved to be an invaluable part of the shock research team for six years. If Blalock wants him to remain, he should pay him a fair wage.