By the time the Urban League luncheon was served to 400 people last Friday in Pasadena, tempers had flared, charges of racism had surfaced, several waitresses had broken into tears and two irate servers had walked out.
For several very uncomfortable minutes, the racial composition of the predominantly white staff that would serve the luncheon of the predominantly black Urban League became an issue.
What follows is not one tale but two because, in a sad testimony to the state of racial relations, neither side can agree on who said what. Did the black Urban League officials really demand that white servers not be present? Did the white servers overreact, misinterpreting an observation as an order?
What actually happened as silverware and butter chips were set upon the banquet tables may never be sorted out. But without a doubt, the event left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the workers. A white waitress recoiled at being asked to "stand at the wall because of my race." A black waitress insisted that whites simply "didn't know how to react" to what was so common in her own life: "a little feeling that they are being prejudiced against."
On that morning, a team of 26 waiters, waitresses and supervisors employed by a food-serving company, Host Helpers, arrived shortly after 9 a.m. at Pasadena City College to transform a dining hall into a banquet room for the 10th annual luncheon of the Pasadena-Foothill branch of the Urban League.
As several servers were bringing salads to the tables, Shirley Adams, director of the Urban League branch, spoke with Host Helpers' staff director, Andrew Wright. Adams said she can recollect only "bits and pieces" of her conversation with Wright. But she recalled one aspect that led her to speak with Wright: "There was no diversity to the work force," she said. She was surprised, she said, because she had asked the catering company that hired Host Helpers to provide "a diverse work force." Instead, only four of the 26 workers were minorities. (The catering company, Professional Food Management, declined to return phone calls.)
The two sides cannot agree on what happened next. But versions of the conversation between Adams and Wright caused a shock wave that quickly divided the banquet staff along racial lines.
Adams, according to Wright, was furious that so many whites were setting tables. Wright's account was corroborated by three servers who overheard portions of the discussion.
"Shirley Adams very clearly and loudly stated in front of the servers and various bystanders, why were Anglo personnel here, this was unacceptable, they could not work and would have to leave," Wright said. "The African American servers could stay, and the college would have to find African Americans from within the college to replace the whites.
"Totally stunned at this request, I mentioned that the replacements would not be professional servers and would not have uniforms. Shirley Adams then angrily replied, 'Why did [the food-serving company] send Anglos to work when she would only allow African Americans to work.' "
Adams said she never stated that the white personnel were unacceptable but "might have said" that Host Helpers had demonstrated an "unacceptable" commitment to diversity.
Nor, Adams said, did she ever suggest summoning African American college students to replace Host Helpers' white staff members.
"It was not a conversation that said someone cannot work because of their race," Adams said. "To send someone home, to say they could not work because of their race; if that interpretation was left, it is not correct."
Wright called an emergency meeting for his helpers and "explained that Shirley Adams had stated that African Americans could stay and work, but that the Anglo white people would have to return home. At this, all the helpers, including the minorities, were extremely shocked and upset."
Shortly afterward, La Vonne Dancy, an event manager for the Urban League branch, approached the assembled group and apologized for any misunderstanding, telling everyone they should stay and work. She explained to the servers that the Urban League--nationally praised for its commitment to economic advancement and civil rights--did its best to promote women and minorities.
Several servers said that Dancy asked the minorities to step forward. It was a request that angered many whites.
"I am not going to stand at the wall because of my race, like I am waiting to be sold like a piece of meat," said Linda Roberts, a 27-year-old white waitress.
"She asked the black and Hispanic people to step forward," said Aasha Mullen, who is white. "That was just sickening to me."
Dancy said she never asked anyone to step forward: "I would not isolate them." But she conceded that she was interested in determining how many minorities were present because she was disappointed by how few she saw. She said she had heard Wright tell Adams earlier in the morning that 40% of the staff were minorities.
Wright said Dancy heard wrong. He said he had told Adams four on the staff were minorities.
By the time everyone understood they were welcome to work, regardless of skin color, many were still angry. Mullen and waitress Karen Feder declined to work--a choice that Wright had left to each individual.
"I could not work. I went home. I had driven 35 miles and I was sick to my stomach," said Feder, 28, who is white. "I felt I had no other choice; my hands were shaking so much. I was so angry, there was no way I could work. I had never been made to feel so low before in my life."
Milo Addica, an aspiring actor who is white, decided to stay and work because he needed the money. He saw the incident as a understandable tipping of the scales that had once discriminated against blacks.
"There's a balance being created," said Addica, 32. "There's a lot of guilt among Caucasians; we have to accept a lot now. Until this silent apology has been met, let them have their day."
Initially, Host Helpers' three black waitresses on duty were also upset by what was perceived as reverse racism. But two women, Lady Gray and Wendy Kidd, talked with Urban League officials, who assured them that no one ever said that whites were unwelcome to work. As a result, the black waitresses said they felt their white colleagues were reacting to hearsay, being thin-skinned and taking personally the organization's desire to have a work force that better reflected its mission of aiding minorities.
"I felt they overreacted to the situation," said Kidd, 25. "I could see people who are not black can't handle a little feeling that they are being prejudiced against. . . . I'm not saying there was racism, but they didn't know how to react."
Gray said the incident was one "big misunderstanding," compounded by the volatile nature of race relations.
"It seems her [Adam's] words were changed around, it's making her as well as the organization look bad and that wasn't her intent," said Gray, 21. "I've dealt with this type of thing all my life--reacting emotionally is never the best thing to do. A lot of times when it comes to race, it's a touchy issue."
Because of his conversations with Adams, Wright asked the black waitresses and Caucasian Roberts, whose skin is dark, to tend the front tables where the honored guests sat. Wright said he felt shocked by the events before the luncheon but believed it was his responsibility to ensure that the event went smoothly.
Days later, he remained bitter.
"This is a group that promotes racial harmony and promotes minorities and here they are contradicting everything they stand for," he said.
When told that the Urban League officials disputed his and others' version of what occurred before lunch, he replied: "There is no reason for us to make anything up at all."