HUD Chief Administrative Law Judge Alan W. Heifetz has ordered a Vidor, Texas, woman to pay more than $300,000 because of her "relentless campaign of intimidation" against a black man and his white friend in a public housing complex. Judge Heifetz ruled, July 26, that Edith Marie Johnson, 47, taunted fellow public housing resident Bill Simpson with racial slurs and threatened his life. Heifetz also ruled that Johnson threatened the life of Ross Dennis, a white man who had befriended Simpson at Alan W. Heifea the Vidor Village complex.
"The egregiousness of (Johnson's) discriminatory conduct cannot be overstated," Heifetz wrote. "Her conduct towards Mr. Simpson and Mr. Dennis was flagrant, notorious and pernicious.
Conduct Based On Race
"It was based on the most negative of racial stereotyping, which she sought to foster throughout the Vidor Village community," the judge wrote. Johnson was ordered to pay $125,300 to Dennis and $175,000 to the estate of Simpson, who was shot to death in an unrelated incident last September after moving out of Vidor because of the racial taunts.
The awards are for emotional distress. Johnson also was assessed a $10,000 civil penalty for engaging in a discriminatory housing practice and was ordered to pay Dennis $300 for cost he incurred when he moved to another state to escape the harassment.
Simpson and another man, John DecQuir, were the first black residents of Vidor in at least 70 years when they moved into the public housing complex in March 1993.
The two endured taunts, obscene gestures and threats of lynching for six month. Despite support from Dennis and a few other whites in the complex. Simpson and DecQuir gave up and moved out of the southeast Texas town last September, according to the Austin American Statesman.
Last August, Simpson filed a complaint with local authorities, saying Johnson called Dennis and others talking to Simpson "nigger lovers." Simpson alleged that the woman said: "If I had a gun , I'd kill that nigger. I could just puke." She told The Beaumont Enterprise at the time that she did "call Simpson a nigger" but denied that she had ever threatened anyone with a gun.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Mr. Dennis, former Vidor housing project resident, said he would faint if he received even 3 cents of the $125,000 the judge ordered the white supremacist to pay him. Dennis, 56, a former president of a tenants' association, had been an advocate of integrating the all-white project. "It (the judgment against Johnson) delivered the message that Bill Simpson and I tried to get over for a long time," Dennis said. "It's the message that we're poor, we're not stupid. You shouldn't be able to mess with us just because we're poor." Heifetz found that Johnson made threats against Simpson and Dennis several times during the spring and summer of 1993, usually while Simpson was sitting in Dennis' front yard. The judge found Johnson used racial slurs in remarks about Simpson and said that if he "comes into my yard, I'll kill him with my baseball bat."
Johnson Reported Klan Plans to Burn
Johnson also began to pass along messages to neighbors that she had been to various Ku Klux Klan meetings and that Klan groups had plans to burn down the 74-unit public housing complex. While no specific racial violence was reported in the complex, carloads of persons clothed in robes sometimes drove through the complex and the Vidor area was the site of rallies by several Klan and other white supremacist groups.
The tensions made it hard for Dennis and Simpson to sleep. Both lost weight, began to drink and smoked more cigarettes. "Once an optimistic, extroverted individual, he became remote, distracted and despondent," the judge said of Simpson.
Dennis moved his wife and teenage daughter out of state in August 1993. Three weeks later, Simpson moved to Beaumont. Ironically, his death in Beaumont in an unrelated incident, allegedly at the hands of black youth, brought massive publicity to attempts to desegregate Vidor, which had no black resident for some 70 years.
Support from Secretary Cisneros
The departure from Vidor of Simpson and DecQuir triggered a renewed effort by HUD officials to desegregate the all-white housing complex. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros came to the Vidor area two weeks after Simpson's death and announced the federal takeover of the Orange County Housing Authority, which operated the Vidor complex. Since then, HUD has spent more than $1.8 million upgrading security at the complex, air conditioning apartments and making other improvements. There are now 21 African-American families in the complex and 28 more on waiting lists.
When More Blacks Moved in, Johnson Moved Out
Johnson moved out of the complex in January, 1994 as the first of her new black neighbors moved in. In April a municipal court judge found her guilty of making threats against Dennis and Simpson, fined her $20 in court costs. Because she was indigent, Municipal Court Judge Rodney Price ordered Johnson to perform 40 hours of community service in lieu of the fines.
Dennises Welcomed New Black Neighbor
Judge Heifetz's 15 page opinion followed a hearing in Beaumont, Texas April 19, 1994. It included a warm portrayal of the friendship which developed between the Demises and Mr. Simpson. Soon after he moved into Vidor Village they walked to his apartment and introduced themselves. They invited him for coffee.
They became very close friends. Mr. Simpson didn't have a drivers license and Mr. Dennis drove him in his car when he needed a drive. Mr. Simpson liked to sit at a table under a tree in the Demises front yard. The two men played cards, dominoes, ate meals together and took walks into Vidor. Because of Ms. Johnson's threats they had', to move the table to the back yard. Mr. Simpson, who was nearly seven feet tall and weighted 330 pounds, sometimes spent the night at the Dennises because he was afraid to go back to his own apartment.
"Bringing People Together Will be Worth It"
Despite the devastating effect of Ms. Johnson's flagrant conduct on both the Demises and Simpson, Judge Heifetz found that Mr. Simpson remained a "religious, open minded man." Mr. Simpson said, "If we can bring people together as a community where everyone can live together in peace, then it will be worth it."
The Texas HUD ALJ order is reminiscent of the 1992 judgment by Judge Samuel A. Chaitovitz for Lillye Clay of Louisville, KY, for $87,000 against two white men who tried to firebomb her house. Her complaint was filed with HUD in 1990 after the men plead guilty in Jefferson Circuit Court to the attempted firebombing. Following a December 1992 hearing, Judge Chaitovitz found that Clay and her five children has suffered both economic and emotional loses because of the racial harassment. Ms. Sara Pratt, then an Louisville attorney, helped her file.
Texas Commission Plans Suit Against Klan
Frank Thompson, Chairman of the Texas Commission on Human Rights, said he was pleased with the judgment. He particularly liked the $300,000 remedy.
Thompson said, "This judgment and remedy sets a precedent for the Commission's cause of action against the White Camelia Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan based on acts of intimidation to prohibit the desegregation of the Vidor Public Housing Project. In the near future the Executive Director of the Commission will issue a charge against both Klan organizations. The Commission will file its lawsuit in state court against the two Klan organizations for having violated the Texas Fair Housing Act.
HUD Ex rel Estate of William Simpson, and Ross Dennis v. Johnson, HUD ALJ 06-93-1316-8 & 06-93-1262-8.