Black History 365: Adrienne Bennett

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First Black Female Master Plumber in the U.S. Shares Her Journey

August 23, 2018

At the age of 30, Adrienne Bennett became the first black female master plumber in the U.S. Now, 30 years later, she is CEO of her own contracting company, Detroit-based Benkari LLC

She launched the commercial plumbing and water conservation company in 2008 when she felt she had hit the pinnacle of her career. 

“I’ve been a journeyman plumber, a master plumber, project manager, plumbing inspector and code enforcement officer for the city of Detroit for a decade. There was no place left to go but become an independent contractor,” she says. “It was the final frontier.” 

From a young age, she had an interest in the way things worked, and that lead to her applying for an entry-level training program with an engineering firm in Detroit later in life. The program was a pathway into Lawrence Technology University, where she hoped to study mechanical engineering. 

But a racially charged encounter with someone who worked at the firm shocked her so much that she left the program within a year and never attended college. 

“I was young, naive. I had never been called something like that before. I was blindsided,” she says. 

Her mother helped her through it. “I cried a lot, but she told me to take it as a life lesson and continue to move forward,” Bennett recalls. 

For a few years she bounced around doing odd jobs, including work as an advocate for people on public assistance programs. But then, at a 1976 election rally for Jimmy Carter, Bennett had a chance meeting that would change the direction of her life. 

Gus Dowels, a recruiter from the Mechanical Contractors Association of Detroit, approached Bennett and asked her “How would you like to make $50,000 a year?” “I asked him, ‘Is it legal work?’,” recalls Bennett. 

Dowels was working for a federally-sponsored apprenticeship program for skilled trades and he was looking to recruit minority women, she says. Soon Bennett, who was 22 at the time, was taking the test for admission into the five-year apprenticeship program with the Plumbers’ Union, Local 98.

Throughout her training, Bennett was surrounded by men, both in the classroom and in the field. “It was dirty work. It was rough and physically demanding. It paid $5 an hour with a 50-cent raise every six months,” she said. 

As she started to break through each barrier, successfully passing exams and earning praise from instructors, Bennett met backlash, hostility and bullying from her male peers.

“I always wore a very heavy toolbelt around my waist. I did this for protection because men would try to grab at me inappropriately,” she says. “Many times, I was the only woman with as many as 100 men on a construction site.” 

One time the bullying was so intolerable that Bennett recalled driving in a fog back to the union hall and breaking down emotionally. But she pulled herself together and when she completed the program, she became the first women in the state to have successfully done so. 

“I was not going to let myself or anyone else down,” she says. 

Read the full original story about Bennett’s journey and her work in rebuilding the city she has lived in since she was 9 years-old here.