Local News

Mechanics Sue Over Rope Noose Left In NCDOT Workshop

Posted December 19, 2002 5:41 a.m. EST

— Seven black mechanics say white Department of Transportation shop supervisors left a hangman's noose displayed over a workbench for 35 days, including Black History Month.

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

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

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

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

Len Sanderson, state highway administrator, was adamant that the rope 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 through trucks," he said. "That is not a story. That is a fact."

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

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

"I've been a mechanic since 1969 and I've never used a rope to pull anything with," Isaac, of Holly Springs, said. He pointed out that the rope was clean, indicating it hadn't been used for any work.

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

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

Lawyer Alan McSurely said four other black employees not involved in the lawsuit also saw the rope and were offended.

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

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

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

McSurely said he was seeking unspecified monetary damages and a court order requiring DOT to institute programs to provide equal employment opportunities for blacks.

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

"I want to pave a way where my son doesn't have to deal with this," 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 white supervisor running the meeting "didn't do anything to stop it," Landrum said.

Another mechanic said the atmosphere at the shops was unpleasant for black employees. Waymond Chavis, 45, of Raleigh said another supervisor still has on his desk a newspaper photo of a black employee who was jailed. The photo has bars drawn on it and it wasn't removed despite his complaints.

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

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

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