My Unforgettable Meeting With Henry C. Goodrich
By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on January 10, 2023
Brigadier General Royal Hatch was a retired Air Force officer. A native of Wellesley, Mass., General Hatch had a long and very distinguished Air Force career. In 1994, General Hatch served as Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr.’s liaison to the business community. This is where I first met him. At the time, I was serving as Mayor Arrington’s special counsel. One day General Hatch asked me to accompany him to a private meeting with Mr. Henry C. Goodrich, a Birmingham business icon. Goodrich, a native of Fayetteville, Tennessee, was chairman and chief executive officer of Inland Container Corporation headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind., where he worked from 1968-1979. He also was chairman and chief executive officer of Sonat, Inc., headquartered in Birmingham, where he worked from 1979-1985. During his career, Henry Goodrich was a director of 35 different companies, including nine New York Stock Exchange listed companies – Time, Inc., Ball Corporation, Stokely-Van Camp, Inland Steel, Cousins Properties, Protective Life Corporation, Indiana Bell and Indiana National Bank, as well as the companies of which he was an executive. It was well known in Alabama that Henry Goodrich, William Houston Blount (former CEO of Vulcan Materials), and Elton B. Stephens (founder of EBSCO Industries) were the titans of business in Birmingham during the 1980s and early 1990s. They were rich and powerful men. As a bridge-builder myself, I was excited to meet Henry Goodrich. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to learn from a living legend in business and to establish an open dialogue about my legal work for the city. General Hatch picked me up from my office and we headed to Goodrich’s private suite of offices on Highland Avenue in a building that is literally next door to my office today. When General Hatch and I entered Goodrich’s office, I extended my hand to shake his. Goodrich did not shake my hand. At that moment, I knew this was not going to be the kind of meeting that I was expecting. Henry Goodrich’s refusal to shake my hand stunned and embarrassed General Hatch, but he did not say a word about it. Goodrich, of course, shook Hatch’s hand. Once we sat down, Goodrich started talking to me without looking at me. He informed me that “they” had chosen him to talk to me, without defining who was included in the term “they.” In a 30-minute uninterrupted and demeaning scolding, Henry Goodrich told me in brutally frank language that: (a) I was a troublemaker in Birmingham who was disturbing the business community’s “good relations with the colored community”, (b) I was responsible for Birmingham City Council hearings on discriminatory lending practices, or “redlining,” by area banks, (c) I was the force behind the City’s efforts to increase the volume of city contracts awarded to women and minorities for the procurement of goods and services, (d) I was leading Mayor Arrington astray with my legal work on achieving greater equality in employment opportunities within City Hall, (e) I was making unnecessary waves by suggesting that the City leverage its hundreds of millions of dollars in banking deposits as a tool for encouraging corporate reinvestment in the city’s underserved neighborhoods and communities, and (f) I needed to leave town, immediately. For the entire time Henry Goodrich was scolding me, I had to force myself to remain calm and respectful. I was unsure about the nature and scope of Mayor Arrington’s relationship with Goodrich, so I took the non-stop barrage of insults from him because I did not want to damage Arrington’s relationship with Goodrich. After Goodrich was finished scolding me, I responded to each one of his talking points in a civil and respectful tone. Naturally, I disagreed with his assessment of my work as Mayor Arrington’s special counsel. I thought my nine years of services (as of 1994) had (a) brought accountability and transparency to city government, (b) promoted equal employment opportunities within the executive ranks of city government, (c) made it possible for blacks and women to participate equitably in city contracts for goods and services, (d) sensitized local banks to the unfairness of “redlining” practices, and (e) helped Arrington to move Birmingham forward. I viewed myself as a partner-in-progress with the City and its business community. I even bragged about my solid personal and professional relationship with Emory Folmar, Montgomery’s ultra-conservative, white Republican mayor. None of this moved Henry Goodrich, who still would not look at me. He ended the meeting by telling me, “I see that talking to you has been a waste of my time. You are Arrington’s “Rasputin.” For students of history, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, and gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia. With this final insult, General Hatch and I left the meeting. On the drive back to my office, I was too angry and filled with hurt to engage General Hatch in any kind of conversation. I had never let anyone talk to me in that way. Mayor Arrington was out of the country when my meeting with Goodrich occurred. I told him about it upon his return to Birmingham. Arrington was not surprised by the substance or nasty tone of the scolding. In fact, Arrington showed me a handwritten letter from another prominent white business leader calling upon him to fire me. This person acted friendly to my face, but talked about me in very derogatory terms behind my back. After I read the letter, Arrington balled it up, throw the letter in his trash basket, and told me to focus on my work. Arrington and I made a pact that day. Going forward, I would be the gladiator who fought in the arena. He would serve in the role of a statesman and “peacemaker.” I did not have the intestinal fortitude to sit through another meeting like the one I had with Henry C. Goodrich, who I never saw again. Every time I look out my office window at the building next door, I think about Henry Goodrich and that awful meeting. Goodrich died on December 11, 2011 at the age of 91. General Hatch died on August 6, 2006. As for me, I am still speaking up for those who have no voice and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The names of the individuals who oppose economic and social progress for all Americans are different today, but the fight is the same.
[Author's Note: This article was first published on January 29, 2019. In light of the City of Birmingham, Alabama's fast-pace regression on black economic empowerment during the last five years, I have republished it.]