Charlene Pullen grew up on a small Mississippi Delta cotton farm. She was out picking cotton at four years old staying cool under the soaring stacks in the blazing summer heat. She never considered her family poor because they had plenty to eat and her mom always made sure to use a lace tablecloth with china and cloth napkins, and made the family use southern manners.
She was severely shy growing up, hiding under the bed during visits with relatives. She never wanted people to look at her or ask her questions. She was an observer of people—the good, the bad, and the phony people. She thought she was just regular and tried to stay that way because being regular was safe. Relatives called her “Honey Bunny” because she didn’t bother them; she just smiled.
When her dad sold the farm and the family moved to College Park, Georgia, Charlene hated leaving Mississippi and being in high school with so many strangers. She stayed in the bathroom during lunch until the bell rang to go back to class. Knowing how shy she was, there were bullies who tried to take advantage of her quiet nature. They figured the best way to scare other girls was to pick on her, but they were in for a surprise. “I finally had to open my mouth to speak. I told them ‘It will be my pleasure to meet you off campus! Just tell me where and what time!’” she says. “I do not know where it comes from, but I’m not afraid of anyone and never have been.” After being confronted, the girls backed down and eventually became her friends.
Charlene grew up tip-toeing around her mom so as not to ever give her an excuse to get upset. But somewhere inside of her, she knew she was meant for better things that life had to offer. She was a fighter, a warrior.
Charlene married Dickie Denney, who only had a car to his name, and the two of them had four kids—two boys and two girls. “It was hard financially trying to do as much as we could with just Dickie’s pay check, but I budgeted every dollar he made,” she says. Every time he worked overtime something would break that required using the extra money, Charlene tried to think of something to invent or some business to get into. “I just couldn’t see myself working for the man and being harassed and talked down to! Women had to endure harassment from male supervisors. Men were always the managers, supervisors, big chiefs in charge. And the pay scale was nothing you could survive on back then. Dickie and I used to sit on the front porch and try to figure out how we could go into business. He was very smart and had the skills of the trade as pipefitter welder out of the Union Local 72 here in Atlanta. I finally convinced him to give it a try. He said, ‘You figure out how to get the money and set everything up, and I will quit my job and we will try with everything we have in us!’”
Charlene went to the local bank to ask for a loan. “I knew we had good credit, so it should be a cinch to borrow just $5,000 to buy a used truck and a few tools. The bank manager had me going for over a week filling out papers, so I was getting really excited. He had me come to the bank to meet with him, and he leaned back in his big leather desk chair and smugly said, ‘I’m not going to be able to loan you the $5000 because you are wanting to have a construction company, and you being a woman, I don’t think you will make it. Now if you told me you wanted the money to have a florist business or a bakery, a business more acceptable for women, then there would be no problem in me loaning you the money.”
She fought the urge to cry and vehemently told him, ”I will tell you one thing, I will get the money and I will go into business, and I will make a lot of money. And the first thing I am going to do is buy the bank and fire you!”
Charlene and Dickie did get the money by borrowing a little on the equity on their home, got some business cards, and started knocking on doors. As the years went by, their business grew steadily.
Charlene got certified as a Female Business Enterprise (FBE) with the City of Atlanta through their Equitable Business Opportunities (EBO) program. The program had rules that 30% of the city’s work had to go to minorities and female-owned businesses.
“Even as a female business my company had to give away 30%,” she says. “Basically, it was an unconstitutional set up for not only the city of Atlanta, but for other large cities throughout the U.S.
One day Charlene got a phone call from the Southeastern Legal Foundation. The lawyers needed a plaintiff in order to file a lawsuit to shut down the EBO Program and wanted to know if she would participate. “I said absolutely! I had already sued the city of Atlanta for fraud, conspiracy and favoritism a year earlier and had won.”
Charlene arrived at a round table meeting, with her daughter and daughter-in-law, prepared to speak her mind about the injustices of the program and find a way to beat the system. She sat in a room with several black business owners, Asian and Hispanic business owners, and was surprised to find out from the AJC newspapers spread on the table that the lawsuit had been filed that very morning with herself listed as a plaintiff. She was encouraged to speak first and turned boldly to Rev. CT Vivian and asked him if she could get certified as a minority company because in the federal archives she had found her great-grandmother listed in an Indian Roll book—but the first words in the book said, “She was known to be a woman of color.” The Rev. started laughing and told her, “Mrs. Denney, you are the first white person I’ve ever heard wanting to be African American!”
“It was tough for me and my family. There were death threats. The news hit nationwide on TV. So many large cities LA, New York, Chicago, Detroit and more had the same EBO Program, and by me suing to shut it down a lot of palms wouldn’t get greased anymore with their corrupt unconstitutional discriminatory program.”
“We started losing big time,” she says. “We had to sell off our building and move offices to the house. We had to sell tools and equipment just to survive. We got on unemployment, and Dickie had a heart attack and had to have open heart surgery. Times were really tough.”
Charlene’s construction company eventually got a $8000.00 job to do at the dog food plant. Her two sons were excited as they loaded up tools to go do the job as Charlene was heading to the defendants law firm in Atlanta to be deposed. Charlene says a young lawyer began by asking her, “Mrs. Denney, where is your company doing work right now?” Worried about the safety of her sons at the jobsite, she turned to her lawyer and whispered that she didn’t want to let anyone know the location of the job. Her lawyer insisted that she had to answer the question despite her safety concerns. Charlene’s lawyer told her “If one word leaves this room they will have Hell to pay!”
The next question asked was, “Mrs. Denney, do you feel because of this lawsuit you are being black-balled?” She answered, “Yes I do feel we have been blackballed and because I wouldn’t get in the house!” The lawyer asked, ”Mrs. Denney, what do you mean by ‘you wouldn’t get in the house?’” and Charlene answered, “I was told by the Mayor that if I would give him money to go to casinos and gamble, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. BOOM! You could have heard a pin drop on the carpet!” she says.
One week later it was in the news: “Atlanta Ex-Mayor Is Indicted After Corruption Investigation” (Associated Press, Aug 2004). “So I was the beginning of the demise of the corrupt Mayor of the City of Atlanta,” says Charlene.
Shortly after that, the City of Atlanta settled the lawsuit and changed their EBO program to make all women, regardless of race or decent equal 30% goals on any and all City of Atlanta projects. And every large city in America had to follow suit.
After her success in fighting for women’s equal rights, which allowed all woman-owned companies to have an equal leverage to get contracts with the city, she decided to try to get on an SBA 8(a) federal small business assistance program which was for minorities, but not women. “I knew it would be another War Dog move on my part but I was going to try anyway,” she recalls. “I’ve always had that ‘just do it’ mind set. Dickie would come downstairs at 3 a.m. and see me sitting in the living room floor with papers everywhere. He’d say, ‘What are you doing
…don’t you know you’re never going to get accepted on that program!’ I replied back, ‘Watch me! If they don’t let me get on that program, I will shut it down too!’ He just shook his head and went back to bed.”
Three months later she got a letter from the Office of Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C. Opening it tentatively, she read: “CONGRATULATIONS! You have been accepted in the SBA 8(a) program for nine years, and after the nine years you will graduate!”
Charlene was the second minority in the State of Georgia to get accepted to the program, which really helped her company grow, she says.
Charlene’s husband, Dickie, was killed right in front of her in April 2009 in a series of medical malpractice events that the family is contesting. “That’s another War Dog thing I’ve had to deal with, all while my sons and daughters have worked to keep Peachtree Mechanical, Inc. growing and growing,” says Charlene, always one to push on despite any obstacles.
One of Peachtree Mechanical’s projects was doing part of the mechanical work on the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “We are now a multi-million dollar company,” says Charlene. When you come from nothing and walk through the fires of Hell like I have and never ever give up, then God never gives up on you! All of our success is only by the grace of God! God is my warrior and he has my back!”