Wish I Was in Dixie

Dania Beach still struggles to find racial harmony

Other managers insisted that the bathrooms were separate for cleanliness purposes and denied any intent to segregate. But Don Hansen, a manager at the plant, admitted that from the beginning, whites used one bathroom and blacks another. Baker himself recognized that the effect of the division between utility and maintenance workers was to segregate African-Americans and whites. "In short, a practice from the '60s continued until at least 1996," Llopiz wrote.

In addition to often referring to blacks as "you people," Hansen admitted that he and others used the word nigger, but in anger. For example, he recalled Baker having a fight with former black supervisor Mike Alexander, then referring to him as "that dumb nigger." Baker was quick to criticize black workers — for example, often telling Barron, a competent worker by the standards of city evaluations, that Barron didn't know what he was doing.

In his office, Baker kept a picture of Robert E. Lee holding up a Confederate flag. He claimed he did this in response to some of the black workers wearing Malcolm X hats. Baker also said he placed a Confederate flag on the back of a truck that belonged to a black worker because he was angry with the worker.

Workers from the Dania Public Works Department clean up after the 1947 hurricane.
Dania Beach Historial Society
Workers from the Dania Public Works Department clean up after the 1947 hurricane.
After 6 p.m., black residents had to stay on the west side of the tracks.
C. Stiles
After 6 p.m., black residents had to stay on the west side of the tracks.

In the 1990s, Thomas recalled, black workers were not allowed to enter City Hall, and they were also asked not to enter certain workspaces, including the shop and the water plant. Thomas told Llopiz he was required by Williams to work while white employees sat smoking or playing solitaire. He said black workers were always given the worst trucks.

As for Barron's parking complaint, Hansen said that every other operator but Barron was allowed to park in the front. (Others noted that Alvan Jones and Stanly Johnson received the same restriction.) Hansen added that Baker seemed to give Barron "a hard time all the time."

During the interview with Llopiz, Baker initially said he told Baker to park in "employee parking," avoiding the words "out back." But in a subsequent interview, he admitted he was trying to save the situation from being linked to the Rosa Parks "back of the bus" incident.

Nearly all of the plant's minority employees said Baker found fault with them more frequently than he did with whites. Those interviewed agreed that Baker had problems with Barron, Lutchman Singh (an East Indian), and Dan Cherian (Indo-Trinidadian), as well as Alvin Jones and Mike Alexander (both African-Americans). Singh eventually left the Dania plant to work in another city, reportedly because of Baker. Jones worked there for just four months and quit on the same day Barron did, for the same reason.

So why, over all these years, did no one complain to the city? They wanted to keep their jobs, minority workers said. And they were afraid of retaliation.

After the only formal complaint — the letters Cherian wrote in the mid-1990s — he became the target for frequent management complaints, he says. Cherian told EEOC investigators that he had thought about quitting many times but that the pay and benefits were good, so he tolerated Baker. (Cherian did not respond to messages from New Times.)

Other employees told Llopiz and New Times that retaliation was always on their minds.

Llopiz's recommendations to the city were clear. Unless it was prepared for a torrent of bad press and a costly lawsuit, it should settle. "Because the amount at issue is approximately $16,000, liability likely, potential federal civil claims possible, costs of defense great, unlimited exposure to damages, fees judgments, and a large verdict to be expected, settlement for such a reduced amount is recommended," he wrote.

The case threatened to uncover decades of racism in Dania. Even Baker recognized the problem. "If you put all this together, it makes me look like the grandmaster of the Ku Klux Klan," he told Llopiz, "but I never intended to hurt anyone because they were black."

Though Dania's Human Resources director, Mary McDonald, admits that in the past there were unacceptable practices going on within the city, she's sticking to her original conclusions on the Barron case.

"There was no evidence of racially motivated actions," she said in an email. "Each assertion was answered with facts that did not support a claim of racial bias." But the events of the past "cast a shadow of doubt," McDonald wrote, which led to Dania's settling the case with Barron, who had no lawyer until the end of the process, for $16,987.

Though it's difficult to know how much Barron could have gotten, several lawyers New Times talked to about the case said that a good lawyer would have advised him to ask for more, possibly a lot more. But the EEOC rarely seeks damages for pain and suffering, one lawyer said.

Barron's settlement included back pay for the 19 weeks he was unemployed. It also included attorney's fees and the differences in his salary and health benefits at his new job with the Coral Springs water plant.

As for Baker, he was put on a performance plan and given sensitivity training. "The decision to keep Mr. Baker employed was made after consulting with legal counsel and it was a difficult decision," McDonald wrote. "While we cannot deny that Mr. Baker as well as other employees have participated in unacceptable practices some years ago, there was no concrete evidence that these practices persist."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help