Noose statue at center of discrimination lawsuit in Detroit

By: M.L. Elrick
FOX 2 Investigative Reporter

DETROIT (WJBK) -- Images can be very powerful, and few images in America's troubled history of race relations are more powerful than a noose.

A special investigation from Fox 2's M.L. Elrick shows the battle against racism is far from over, as a Detroit shop worker recent learned the hard way. The shop worker's attorney calls it the worst case of discrimination he's seen in 20 years.

VIDEO: Watch Elrick's report in the video player above or read the transcript below


MEYERS: It's, it's again shocking for me to see this in Michigan but it looks like we have not only turned back the clock but we've turned back the clock and we've crossed the Mason Dixon Line into the 60s.

This is a statue, face painted black, hanging at the end of a raspy rope in the back of a dusty shop where rough men turn concrete into parking blocks, planters and funeral vaults.

Norman Meyers works in that shop. Norman Meyers is black.

MEYERS: I'm thinking, actually I'm not believing it, but I also understand my position. I need my job so, and I see them ignoring this, so I have to ignore. You know, just to be able to continue to provide for myself and for my family.

But that wasn't all Meyers endured. He was the victim of sophomoric pranks and racial slurs.

CO-WORKER: Hi, Normie.
MEYERS: Hello, good morning Joe.
CO-WORKER: You have fun robbin' banks and smokin crack last night?

CO-WORKER: It's all about you then.
CO-WORKER: February. Whoa, Black History Month. Black History Month. That's when we have, everybody will have respect for you.
MEYERS: Oh, okay, okay. My birthday's February 1st.
CO-WORKER: Oh, well, that's naturally, I mean, that's when all the colored are born.

ATTORNEY: I believe there's been a violation of these gentlemen's civil rights.

Violation or not, something happened at American Eagle Precast - something the owners should answer for.

ELRICK TO OWNER: Forget the legal matters for a minute, are you concerned that something like this may have happened in your shop?

The statue hung in this shop in Detroit for months. People walked by it. People sat by it, until a visiting contractor finally jarred Meyers into action.

MEYERS: There was a female electrician who came in and she looked at it, and when she seen it, she looked at me and she kinda like dropped her head and I kinda, like, felt how she felt, and, uh, I think that was the straw when I decided that I was going to really have to do something about this.

And he did.

MEYERS: I got pictures of a bunch of 'em just walking past it dangling. Couldn't miss it.

ATTORNEY: He's not the incompetent person that they believe him to be because he's done an excellent job in documenting what has been done to him and gathering evidence.

MEYERS: They say a picture's worth a thousand words. We've got pictures, videos and audios.

Meyers contacted the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. They investigated, but the statue remained.

MEYERS: It stayed up eight more days. It was up eight more days before it came down.

The noose is a powerful and frightening symbol. Norman Meyers is old enough to remember when lynchings were all too common.

These pictures are from "Without Sanctuary," where congressman John Lewis writes: "Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe - don't want to believe - that such atrocities happened in America not so very long ago."

And the personal toll can be devastating.

ELRICK: And you've been seeking treatment for how long? 

MEYERS: Oh, um, I seen a psychiatrist starting January and then they got me on two medications, one for depression and one for anxiety. Um, they told me if I'm ever thinking anything wrong that I need to go to Henry Ford or to call them.

Civil rights investigators questioned employees at American Eagle.

BARTELOTTI: This, THIS shouldn't happen again. This shouldn't happen to anyone. I don't know what you do to stop it other than what you can, speak up.

James Bartelotti says he spoke up and he says it cost him his job.

BARTELOTTI: I didn't sign up for this. I did what was right. And that's it. (PAUSE) And I would do it again.

Meyers still has his job, but he and Bartelotti sued American Eagle and its owners, Marty Begun and Mike Considine.

ELRICK ((ON PHONE)): Hey, Mr. Considine, it's M.L. Elrick calling from Fox 2 news. I wanted to see if I could set up a time to see if we could talk about a lawsuit. ... If we don't hear from somebody, we'll, you know, we'll come calling.

So we did go calling but Considine and Begun didn't have any answers for us.

ELRICK: Hey, Marty Begun! Mr. Begun, M. L. Elrick with Fox 2 News. I was wondering if we could talk to you for a minute about this picture. Have you seen this before? Did you see this hanging in your shop?
BEGUN: I can't talk to you about that. You'll have to talk to my attorney, Mr. Finkel.
ELRICK: How would you miss something like this? It hung there for months. Do you condone this?

The owners aren't saying much, but look at this. Meyers says this is Mike Considine walking right past the offending idol. Meyers says Considine walked past it every day.

Meyers and Bartelotti say they're not the only ones affected by what went on inside this shop. They claim American Eagle sends defective burial vaults to black cemeteries.

Meyers says this exchange he recorded supports his allegation.

MEYERS: Where some of those cases going to?
CO-WORKER: Black cemeteries. Detroit west.
MEYERS: Suppose it don't matter, huh? Marty said that these don't matter, huh?
CO-WORKER: It don't matter, Norman, to them. They'll take anything.
CO-WORKER 2: If it's going to white chapel it's got to be good.
MEYERS: Okay. And what's white chapel?
CO-WORKER 2: The white cemetery.

BARTELOTTI: They didn't get the quality products, they got what should have been thrown out, most of 'em. Taken to the dump. Cracked. Broken.

ELRICK TO BARTELOTTI: What does that do to the dearly beloved who have gone on?
BARTELOTTI: They fill with water, the whole, the casket and everything.

Lawyers for American Eagle have denied the men's claims they're fighting the lawsuit.

Incredibly, Meyers continues working here at American Eagle. He says he needs the job even though he's now leery of his colleagues.

ATTORNEY: I've never seen, in my experience here in Michigan, anything this overt. It's shocking.

MEYERS: I'm, um, I'm angry sometimes. I'm a little sad, and I'm in awe.

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