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Mechanics Sue Over Rope Noose Left In NCDOT Workshop

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Seven black mechanics say white Departmentof Transportation shop supervisors left a hangman's noose displayedover a workbench for 35 days, including Black History Month.

The seven filed a civil rights lawsuit Thursday, and accused DOTofficials of trying to cover up the controversy.

The lawsuit said the noose was displayed from Feb. 1, the startof Black History Month, until the first week of March, when theemployees filed racial harassment charges with the Civil RightsDivision of the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

The noose appeared about three months after DOT managersproposed moving a white supervisor out of the shop and putting ablack supervisor in charge.

A high-ranking DOT official said the mechanics were mistakenabout the meaning of the noose, but it was removed as soon asofficials learned they were concerned.

Len Sanderson, state highway administrator, was adamant that therope loop wasn't a hangman's noose.

"The device that I think is in controversy is a handmade tool.This tool was devised in order to pull hydraulic lines throughtrucks," he said. "That is not a story. That is a fact."

But one of the plaintiffs, a 38-year DOT employee, said hedidn't believe it.

James Isaac, 57, was the black supervisor who was named inNovember 2001 to take over the shop that repairs heavy equipmentand trucks. He took charge in March.

"I've been a mechanic since 1969 and I've never used a rope topull anything with," Isaac, of Holly Springs, said. He pointed outthat the rope was clean, indicating it hadn't been used for anywork.

Mechanic James Mitchell, 39, of Durham, said at one point hissupervisor - since removed from the shop - "was calling hisfriends over to look at the noose. To me, it was just like puttingon a show."

The attorney representing the men said the noose was a symbol ofthe Ku Klux Klan and was especially offensive to the black menbecause of the Klan's history of lynching blacks.

Lawyer Alan McSurely said four other black employees notinvolved in the lawsuit also saw the rope and were offended.

"That's management's position, that 11 black men with 160 yearsof experience were lying," he said.

Edward T. Smith, director of the Civil Rights Division, said ina letter that his agency believed the mechanics.

"I believe several hate crime statutes were violated," Smithwrote Wednesday to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

McSurely said he was seeking unspecified monetary damages and acourt order requiring DOT to institute programs to provide equalemployment opportunities for blacks.

He said it took courage for the mechanics to come forward.Several said they were advised by the Civil Rights Division tophotograph the rope and then see how long it stayed up beforemanagement dealt with it.

"I want to pave a way where my son doesn't have to deal withthis," said Lydell Landrum, 34, of Durham.

Landrum said the rope was displayed by a white mechanic who,during a safety meeting, praised the tactics of the Klan. The whitesupervisor running the meeting "didn't do anything to stop it,"Landrum said.

Another mechanic said the atmosphere at the shops was unpleasantfor black employees. Waymond Chavis, 45, of Raleigh said anothersupervisor still has on his desk a newspaper photo of a blackemployee who was jailed. The photo has bars drawn on it and itwasn't removed despite his complaints.

Sanderson said the department didn't tolerate racialdiscrimination. He said personnel whom he wouldn't identify at theBeryl Road shops had received training on harassment.

"We've already provided the training to employees andsupervisors, but we retrained individuals in that unit to make surethey understood this," Sanderson said.

The DOT also contracted with Risk Management Associates ofRaleigh to investigate. In addition, Sanderson said, a personnelofficer has been sent to the shop every week "so if there areissues that people have, she would be more available."

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