On February 1, 2002, the first day of Black History Month, a white worker hung a rope tied like a noose in a Department of Transportation workplace in Raleigh. A group of African-American DOT employees perceived the noose as an offensive symbol of racial hatred and filed suit. Last month, a Raleigh federal jury found that the noose, which hung from the ceiling for more than a month, was a product of a hostile work environment for African Americans. The jury, however, did not hold DOT supervisors accountable for the act and did not award any damages. The seven black workers--Gerald Agnew, Waymon Chavis, James Isaac, Lydell Landrum, James Mitchell, William Stewart and Alvin Williams--have a combined 122 years of experience working for the DOT.
"I think it's a slap in the face," says Mitchell, 41, of Durham. "The jury did not hold the supervisors accountable. Who else are you going to hold accountable? He's responsible for the work area. He's responsible for every employee. Why not hold the supervisor accountable?"
In an interview published in The News & Observer, DOT personnel director Herb Henderson, who is African American, said, "Obviously we're pleased with the decision," and he vowed to "work harder" to improve the workplace.
While the jury of nine whites and three blacks failed to award damages, the trial testimony demonstrated how polarized the work environment is at the DOT facility, where white workers testified that the hanging rope was a "tool," rather than a noose.
"They had every white guy who worked there saying either they did not see anything or they may have seen something that was used as a tool," said Chapel Hill civil rights lawyer Al McSurely, who represented the seven.
In its own investigation, the DOT found that "all the black employees interviewed claimed to have seen what they perceived to be a hangman's noose in the work area." Nine of the black employees "perceived the display of the noose to be intimidating and offensive, that it was directly related to their race, black."
The DOT reported that the black employees believed the noose was hung to "serve as a reminder of when so many blacks were hanged during the times of slavery, etcetera."
Plaintiff Alvin Williams, 57, of Raleigh, said he was bothered by the testimony of his white co-workers and supervisors.
"They kept not saying 'the noose,'" Williams said. "They kept saying 'the tool.' I've been a mechanic for 40 years. We never used any type of rope in the mechanics shop. I stood there and watched the man put the thing up."
Williams said he has been encouraged by other black co-workers to "stay in the fight"--but they won't speak up for fear of losing their jobs.
"They're not stepping forward, but they're pushing us forward," he said. "I told them I don't have a job. I got a gig, because a job gets you promotions and you have prestige; you can go places. I'm just there working."
McSurely said the group is leaning toward appealing the case.
"I'm gonna fight," Mitchell said. "There ain't no turning back. I'll put it that way. I think regardless, as long as I continue to fight and stand up for what is right, that is victory."
McSurely says the problems at the DOT facility are not unique.
"The good old boys understand how the system works, that you just cover things up," McSurely said. "Hire a few black people and let them talk to the press, and you back your guys when they say, 'It's a tool.' You say, 'Yeah, it was a tool,' when they know damn well the thing was never used as a tool. It just hung there."