Charlie Perkins got a call in 2004 to interview for a management position at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Although he spent the majority of his life on the south side of Chicago, Perkins had no idea where Mayo Clinic was located. In fact, after receiving his plane ticket, he was shocked to find out that he was headed to Minnesota. He thought he was headed to Rochester, New York.
Perkins' trip from the Rochester airport to downtown Rochester was a bit of a culture shock. He wasn’t used to seeing cornfields and wide open spaces. As far as he was concerned, Rochester could easily be confused for Mayberry, North Carolina, the fictional small town from the black and white Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s. While Rochester in 2004 was not as small as the 1960s Mayberry, it may have looked that way to Perkins.
Perkins left Rochester expecting never to return, but received an offer he couldn’t refuse and soon made Rochester his home. As one of the few Black employees at Mayo Clinic at the time, he often felt like a “fly in buttermilk” among the mostly white patients and employees.
Perkins would often get approached by Black patients, eager to connect with someone who looked like them, asking his advice for where to go for food, entertainment, and barbershops. Although he lived in Rochester, he struggled with finding the amenities many others take for granted. For many years he traveled to Minneapolis and Chicago to get a haircut because there were no barbers who were skilled at cutting Black hair and there were no restaurants that served the soul and Southern-style food he was used to.
Perkins joined our podcast, The Other Side of the Table, this week to talk about the changes he has seen in Rochester over the past seventeen years, what the community and employers need to do to recruit and retain a diverse pool of employees, and in next week’s podcast, find out what it was like to be a freelance photographer for the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan championship seasons.