- AT BOOK SIGNING: Mercedes Alexander (right)
Aurora Boswell, the African-American heroine of the newly released novel “Aurora’s Stand,” had a hell of a time at Memphis’ City Conference and Exhibition Center. She was denied a job in sales but was used to bring in black business by being asked to accompany sales reps on calls. She was paid less than co-workers with less education and experience, and generally jacked around. The air of racism in her office was such that a black co-worker found a noose hanging at his desk one morning. Boswell fought back with legal action, only to suffer office retaliation after the agency agreed to promote her and pay damages. Eventually, she was fired, but emerged the victor, the agency folding again and settling her second federal discrimination suit with the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
Aurora Boswell is fictional. But Mercedes Alexander is not, and the novel she’s self-published through iUniverse Inc., available at Amazon and Pyramid Books in the River Market district, is, she says, is based on her experience at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The publication of “Aurora’s Stand” comes as Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports of impropriety at the LRCVB — that taxpayer money was used to buy its retiring director a car, that the agency has bought other cars without bids, that it paid more than $141,000 for meals at a restaurant owned by the former head of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, which oversees the bureau — have left the bureau with a big black eye.
The convention bureau in “Aurora’s Stand” is a place where people, including close relations, are hired and promoted without job postings being made and regardless of experience and education, where blacks are paid less than whites for similar work, where salesmen use credit cards for lavish meals and personal items and where box office receipts are forged to cover up missing cash.
Calling a book a novel doesn’t protect its writer from libel. Isn’t Alexander afraid of being sued? No, she says, because she can answer any challenge with information gleaned in depositions taken under oath in her litigation against the bureau.
Anne Parker, lawyer for the bureau, said she had not read Alexander’s book, but has ordered it.
Alexander went to work at the LRCVB as an events coordinator on Jan. 1, 1988. In 1997, after she had been denied jobs in sales in favor of friends of the staff, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. She and two other black LRCVB employees, Robert Brown and Velma Maxwell, filed discrimination suits against the bureau.
Depositions in the case, handled by civil rights lawyer John Walker, reveal the arbitrary nature of hiring practices at the LRCVB in the late 1990s. Barry Travis, then director of the agency, and others acknowledged in their depositions that they’d hired people who did not file formal applications for jobs that black employees would have sought had notices been posted, that blacks were paid less and policies weren’t followed.
In March 1999, the weekend before the case was to go to trial in federal court, the LRCVB settled. It agreed to promote Alexander to deputy director of event operations (a new job), raise her salary grade, and give her a 5 percent promotional increase in pay. She was also paid $20,000 in damages and $10,000 in back pay.
But within months, Alexander had filed another EEOC complaint, alleging retaliation by her co-workers and boss. She claimed her new job description was for duties more secretarial than supervisory and involved more work than one person could do. She also claimed her boss had trumped up accusations of misconduct by her based on co-worker memos. When she filed her EEOC grievance, her boss at the LRCVB fired her; that was July 14, 1999. Alexander then sued a second time, naming the bureau and Phyllis Lucas, director of event operations.
After three days of testimony in federal Judge George Howard’s court in early 2002, the LRCVB decided to settle with Alexander. The city had no record of the setttlement when asked for it this week, but the Arkansas Municipal League, which paid half the settlement award as the bureau’s insurer, provided a copy. The settlement required the city to pay Alexander $363,500. In exchange, she agreed not to apply for work at the LRCVB and dismissed all claims against Lucas. (In the novel, Aurora Boswell holds out for and receives $500,000.)
Alexander now lives in Sherwood and is caring for her mother and step-mother. She said she wrote the book “for therapy reasons.”
“Aurora’s Stand” goes into the minutiae of the heroine’s bedevilment by an underling, and so does not always make for riveting reading. Several points in the book, however, are arresting.
For example, there is the character L.J. Schell, a black licensed electrician who’d been given supervisory duties over white employees, and who finds a miniature noose hanging next to his desk one day.
Ken Torrence, who died some months ago, was head of maintenance at the LRCVB when Alexander worked there. In depositions taken during her litigation, Torrence revealed several instances of racial harassment. He’d found the word “nigger” written on the wall of a utility room that only maintenance men would have reason to enter, heard co-workers praise Hitler ... and found a noose hanging in the maintenance office. Torrence didn’t complain to management, he said, since talking to them would have “been like beating my head up against the wall.”
Another character, Aurora’s supervisor Lou Ann Houser, is portrayed as a semi-literate blonde hired out of high school and who has subsequently risen in the ranks of the Memphis Convention Center. When quizzed by Aurora’s lawyer — the famous civil rights attorney Jaris Cochran — Houser acknowledges that her mother had been given a job at the Memphis center despite a policy against nepotism. Even juicier, however, is Houser’s concession that she criticized Aurora for the expense of 99-cent flashlights and batteries for ushers in the center’s employ while writing off $20,000 that came up missing in an audit of the center’s box office receipts.
Walker deposed Alexander’s supervisor Lucas on Feb. 10, 1997. Lucas, whose mother was also employed at the bureau, was questioned about her reprimand of Alexander for being 15 minutes late to work, and her instructions to Alexander to not purchase flashlights for Music Hall ushers because the batteries would be too costly. Walker brought out in the same deposition that the agency had written off a loss of $20,000 in 1994 that could not be accounted for in box office transactions. Records showed event organizers paying one sum and the bureau not having a corresponding amount on deposit.
The audit produced no action at the bureau. Walker said this week that the Advertising and Promotion Commission declined his request at that time to bring the matter before them.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story went to press, the LRCVB found a copy of one of the two checks issued to Alexander and her lawyer. The check was dated December 2001; the settlement date reported above, early 2002, is apparently in error.