RACISM FOUND ABOARD GOVERNMENT DREDGE
New York Times, May 2, 1997.
By Kevin Sack.
An investigation by the Department of Defense has concluded that black deckhands on a Mississippi River dredge operated here by the United States Army Corps of Engineers have for years endured racial slurs and discriminatory personnel practices by white authorities on the boat.
One of the black workers, Randy C. Galloway, said in an interview today that conditions on the dredge, known as the Hurley, were "modern-day slavery." The 41-year-old Mr. Galloway, who has 10 years with the corps, added, "All they wanted blacks to do was make their beds, cook their food and clean their toilets and walkways."
Another black worker, Chancey Wilson, a 42-year-old deckhand leader with 17 years' corps experience, said, "They wanted you just to be a houseboy." The finding of discrimination, which was made public this week, is the second such judgment against the Army Corps of Engineers this year. In February, the corps agreed to pay $800,000 in damages and to revise its personnel policies to settle a racial discrimination case brought by black workers in Pittsburgh.
Officials with the corps said today that they did not believe that discrimination was endemic in the agency. "I don't think there's as much concern that it is a recurring problem as there is in making sure that it doesn't become a recurring problem," said Homer H. Perkins, a spokesman for the corps in Washington.
In the Memphis case, investigators took particular issue with the decision by officers last year to promote the only black employee on the dredge who had not recently filed a discrimination complaint against them. A second black man, who had filed a discrimination complaint, was also promoted last year. But the investigators concluded that his promotion was apparently designed "as a shield against a possible finding of discrimination."
The two men who were promoted became the first blacks in the 64-year-history of the Hurley and its predecessor boat, the Burgess, to be moved from seasonal work to full-year status. The full-year jobs are coveted because they carry higher salaries, a guarantee of year-round employment and faster advancement toward eligibility for retirement benefits.
The Hurley, a five-story, 300-foot-long vessel, dredges mud from the Mississippi River bottom during a shallow-water season that usually stretches from late spring into the fall. During the season, the dredge operates from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to just north of Baton Rouge, La. In the off-season, it docks in Memphis and full-year employees spend their time maintaining the boat.
Last year, after the two black men were promoted, the Hurley carried a staff of 22 full-year employees and 25 seasonal employees. Most of the seasonal workers are black, while all but the two recently promoted full-year employees are white. Several black dredge workers said that on the Burgess, which was used until 1993, sleeping quarters, bathrooms and mess halls were segregated by race. While white workers were assigned semiprivate quarters in the front of the boat, blacks slept 10 to 12 to a room in the aft. The Defense Department investigation did not address that complaint.
The report, which was filed by the Office of Complaint Investigations in the Defense Department, found that the environment on the Hurley was "permeated with malicious and reckless indifference toward African-American employees.
While saying that black employees who testified in the case may have exaggerated the pervasiveness of racial slurs, the investigators concluded that "the evidence clearly shows white managers used racially charged language—and that they "stifled the progress of African-American employees." The Hurley's captain, Jimmy Nation, "either condoned or ignored discriminatory behavior," the report states.
The report found that white workers regularly used racial epithets to refer to black counterparts in their presence. It also said that white workers told racist jokes on the boat.
Regarding the promotion of David Woods, the black worker who did not file a discrimination complaint, the report concluded that "retaliation such as this is especially egregious since it sends a chilling message to the complainants and others that speaking out against employment discrimination is unacceptable."
The report also found that Mr. Nation had awarded a significant promotion in 1994 to Roger D. Conrad, a white officer who had "exhibited alcohol problems for an extended period of time while occupying a position in the pilot house." The investigators found that Mr. Conrad was "an abusive supervisor prone to berate African-American employees by using harsh and unmistakably racist terms."
The bottom line, they concluded, is that "Mr. Nation placed his trust in an individual with a known alcohol abuse problem but lacked confidence any African-American employee could handle such responsibility."
Alvin C.W. Ellis, counsel to the Memphis district of the Corps of Engineers, said Mr. Conrad had resigned from the Corps last year. He said that the corps was studying the investigative report and that no employees of the Hurley had been disciplined thus far. Officials with the Corps of Engineers and the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing the black workers, agreed that the language in the investigative report was unusually strong.
"This is the agency investigating itself, and you just don't see reports like this come down that often," said Clark D. King, president of Local 259 of the Federal employees union.
The report recommends that the corps provide an "appropriate remedy. "The black workers are seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation, training that would qualify them for advancement, and punishment of white officers who have discriminated. On Wednesday, the corps began discussing a possible settlement of the case with Joshua A. Bowers, a lawyer for the black workers. "The offer was not serious," Mr. Bowers said. "In fact, it was outrageous."
If a settlement cannot be reached, Mr. Bowers said he was likely to take the case to Federal court.