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NAACP leaders allege racial slur in county employee incident


The Journal

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va.  — Two representatives of the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP charged recently that county officials have responded too slowly and insufficiently to racial slurs allegedly uttered repeatedly in the workplace by a white county manager toward a black subordinate.

James Tolbert, local NAACP executive committee member, and George Rutherford, local NAACP president, spoke at a Jefferson County Commission for the second time about the racial matter involving the white and black county employees. They said the black employee was not adequately considered in whatever response county government officials took to address the matter.

“What we’re saying is that the county government is minimizing the effect on this black employee and future black employees,” Tolbert said after the commissioner meeting. “And since they took so long there’s ample reason the black employee feels he is held to blame for all of this.”

“There’s frustration on part of the employee because the employee had to wait a long, long time for just a little bit of response,” he said. “The county did nothing in his defense.”

Tolbert said the black employee reported the situation about five months ago to the county administrator. He said the black employee reported then that his white supervisor had been repeatedly using a racial slur for African Americans in a purportedly joking manner toward the black employee.

“I think the word ‘joke’ is misused and interpreted,” he said. “Blacks don’t perceive it as a joke. It shouldn’t be used on the job.”

Both lifelong Jefferson County residents who are African Americans, Tolbert and Rutherford said county officials should have communicated back more swiftly to the black employee that disciplinary action was taken. The NAACP representatives said county officials should also have done more to assure the black employee, as well as other county employees across the government, that any form of racial or discriminatory hostility wouldn’t be tolerated in the county workplace. They also said they should have done more to assure the black employee that no backlash would occur for reporting the workplace problem.

“I don’t know if you can treat it that timidly,” Tolbert said. “I think you have to put it on the table that this is what occurred, because we’ve seen the rejection, we’ve seen the practices.”

A county attorney, speaking for county commissioners, said appropriate action was taken in the employee matter. The attorney, Nathan Cochran, said he could respond only broadly and in a limited way because the incident related to the NAACP’s statements entail “ongoing allegations” in a personnel matter that by law needs to shield the identities of those involved. He confirmed, however, that the county has taken action in the matter, but he declined to say what action was taken.

“Once the allegations have been brought to their attention, the county administrator took action,” Cochran said. “The county takes any allegation of discrimination very seriously.”

The county’s commissioners and administrators, Cochran said, “have not been idle” in addressing the racial charges against a county manager. “I would just say that the county investigated the allegation and took some appropriate actions regarding the allegation,” he said.

However, it is a slow response, particularly in communicating with the black employee involved, that Tolbert and Rutherford said is a major part of the concern they voiced to county commissioners Thursday.

Tolbert and Rutherford said county officials failed to respond to the black employee’s complaint until after they appeared before the commission two weeks ago to inquire what disciplinary action had been taken. A county administrator followed up sending the black employee a letter dated May 31 notifying him that disciplinary action had been taken against the white supervisor, they said.

“It shows their inability to deal with issues like this in the workplace,” Tolbert said of the response by county officials.

Tolbert and Rutherford said the black employee told them he felt his supervisor was retaliating against him for reporting the racial slurs. However, Tolbert acknowledged that he had no proof that any retaliation against the black employee occurred, other than what the employee said he felt was retaliation for reporting the ongoing racial slurs.

Tolbert didn’t hold back in reading a prepared statement to commissioners on Thursday.

“More than five months have now passed since specific racist incidents were reported to the county administrator and to you who sit on this commission,” he stated to the commissioners during an agenda period reserved for citizen comments. “You are showing Jefferson County citizens, school students and all that it is OK to utter these names about African Americans. Not only does this county commission tolerate racism, it gives strong notice to other county employees that nothing will affect or impact their employment as long as they violate the rights of black employees and citizens of this community.”

During the end of Tolbert’s statement, Commission President Peter Onoszko told Tolbert more than once to conclude his remarks and abide by a three-minute limit for citizens providing public comments during the commission meeting.

“Sir, please wrap up your comments, or I’ll have you removed from this room,”Onoszko said.

Since their initial appearance before the commission two weeks ago, Rutherford said he received “three to five calls” from county employees alleging additional incidents involving “race, sex and handicapped discrimination” against county employees.

Afterward the commission meeting, Cochran said the county commissioners and administration officials do not and would not “condone” any discrimination against any county employee. He noted that even though Tolbert and Rutherford may not know whether any actions were taken by county officials doesn’t mean none were taken.

Cochran declined to confirm whether any incidents have arisen that involve potential discrimination against female or disabled county employees. He also pointed out that the county has publicly posted a formal policy banning discrimination on its website, and it also provides a written anti-discrimination policy to all of its employees.

“Any allegation of discrimination will be taken very seriously no matter what it is,” Cochran said.

The county’s antidiscrimination policy posted online states in part: “It is the policy and responsibility of the County Commission Office of Jefferson County, West Virginia to provide equal employment opportunity which will affect all employment practices including, but not limited to recruitment, hiring, transfer, promotion, training, compensation, benefits, layoffs and termination without regard to gender, race, color, religious creed, national origin, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or expression, military service, political affiliation, veteran status, genetic information, age or any characteristic protected under state or federal law not specifically listed. … These statements commit the personnel of the Jefferson County Commission to work to promote and achieve equal employment opportunity and a work environment free of discrimination or discriminatory harassment within each specific department, and become a part of all Personnel Policies within the County.”

However, Tolbert said recent history of African Americans in Jefferson County — and mainly too lightly dismissing that recent history — is a major reason for the NAACP’s strong rebuke to the county commission.

A Korean War veteran, Tolbert, 84, remembers firsthand the discrimination he life through in the county. As a sixth generation Jefferson County resident, he was forced to attend segregated schools all through high school. He personally remembers when blacks in the county could not serve on juries. He vividly recalls when whites and blacks were forced to use separate public facilities, including water fountains and bathrooms, restaurants and theaters, and hospitals and hotels. He recalls as almost yesterday how blacks would only be allowed to hold janitorial jobs within the county government.

“If you look at it from our eyes, it would make you upset,” Tolbert said. “Those people in elected positions ought to understand the history of this county, and it’s something we don’t take lightly. We were very, very concerned that after all these years that we haven’t gotten anywhere as far as county employment. It’s like starting from square one all over again.”

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