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January 08, 2010

Bazemore case plaintiffs reunite with Extension administrators

Bazemore group
Plaintiffs and attorneys in the Bazemore case pose for a reunion photo. P.E. Bazemore is in the center, front row. (Becky Kirkland photos)

In the early 1970s, a group of employees of the N.C. Agricultural Extension Service sued the organization over unequal pay for employees of color and over segregated 4-H and Extension Homemaker clubs. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the Bazemore v. Friday plaintiffs in 1986, setting an important precedent on the burden of proof in work place discrimination cases.

In October, many of the original plaintiffs in the case returned to the JC Raulston Arboretum for a reunion and to hear Cooperative Extension and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences administrators describe efforts to improve diversity. The plaintiffs left saying they were impressed with efforts increase diversity among employees and students in the College.

Judge Ed Reibman of Pennsylvania, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Bazemore case, opened the reunion meeting by describing a document he had read recounting the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War’s battle of Gettysburg. At that reunion, former Union and Confederate soldiers put aside differences and embraced their common history. “When people have differences of opinion, why do we have to wait 50 years?” Reibman said. “It takes so long for us to shake hands and move on.”

Reibman began to consider bringing the Bazemore plaintiffs together with Cooperative Extension administrators, whom they had challenged in their historic court case. He approached Dr. Jon Ort of the Cooperative Extension Service at N.C. State University, who enthusiastically supported the idea. “We always considered the case to be a family affair,” Reibman said. “It was a difference of opinion among family.”

The Bazemore case was originally filed in 1971, when Extension employees, clients, Homemaker Club members and parents of 4-H’ers sued the University of North Carolina system, other school officials and county commissioners from three counties. The plaintiffs alleged racial discrimination in Extension’s employment and in the way it provided services to the public.

Though black and white factions of the Extension Service had merged in 1965, the plaintiffs presented statistical evidence showing salary disparities between black and white employees. The Supreme Court found that the statistical analysis of the salaries proved discrimination, though the court found that Extension had acted according to law regarding desegregation of the clubs. The Bazemore precedent still stands today and has been used to prove salary discrimination in other cases, most noteably in the case of Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

Ledbetter, whose case received attention from presidential candidate Barack Obama, proved that she was paid less than men at the same company. However, the statute of limitations in the case did not allow her to collect back pay from Goodyear. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed by Congress earlier this year, overturned the statute of limitations.

The reunion in October brought together the Bazemore plaintiffs, Extension administrators from both N.C. State and N.C. A&T State universities and attorneys for both the plaintiffs and the state. Judge Howard Manning Jr., son of the late Howard Manning Sr. who represented the state, appeared briefly at the reunion and urged participants to get involved with Futures for Kids, a non-profit group focused on dropout prevention.

Schwab and Bazemore
CALS Personnel Director Sheri Schwab talks with P.E. Bazemore, one of the original plaintiffs in the case.

During the meeting, various administrators shared different diversity initiatives of the college and Extension. Again and again, presenters noted, “We’re not there yet, but we’re trying.”
Dr. Joe Zublena, head of county operations, described Extension’s (2005?) legislative initiative to achieve salary equity for employees. Sheri Schwab, head of personnel for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, gave an overview of Extension’s employee demographics. She pointed out that Extension has 108 current vacancies that offer opportunities to increase the organization’s diversity.

Chiquita McAllister of N.C. A&T State University described the efforts of Extension’s Diversity Catalyst Team. The team, which includes employees from both universities, has worked to promote acceptance of diversity among all Cooperative Extension employees.
Lisa Guion, assistant dean for diversity in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, described numerous efforts the college has made to increase its ranks of minority students by introducing high school students to agricultural and life sciences.

In closing the meeting, Reibman offered the plaintiffs a personal challenge to help improve the Extension Service. “Some of the speakers here today gave you some specific suggestions of you can get involved to make the Extension Service better,” he said. “And I’m going to give you one more, which is very easy and it won’t cost you anything and I think you’ll get tremendous personal satisfaction out of it.

“Go back to your community and Identify one or two kids who you think have the potential to be agents in the Extension Service. Take that person under your wings, encourage that kid, be a mentor. Not for a day, not for a week, but for three or four or five years. Get that kid through middle school, high school and college. Get that kid on a program that’s going to make him eligible to apply for one of the 108 current vacancies in this operation. That’s how you can really make a difference.

“We’ve left a legacy – a legacy in this state, a legacy in the Extension Service and a legacy in the law, in terms of the Bazemore litigation. Life is short for all of us. But you still have something else to give – so that all of us will have a better future.”

The original plaintiff, P.E. Bazemore, a former Monroe city councilman and an Extension retiree, said he was very pleased with the progress that was described during the reunion. Looking back on the case, he said it was a hard but necessary step for the plaintiffs to take.

“I think we achieved what was seriously needed at the time. You have another group of (administrators) here now who really want to do the thing right. It isn’t a matter of them being pressured. They’re looking for ways they can make the Extension Service better. And I think that everyone in here is going to be ready to volunteer to do more than they’ve done before.

“I’m overly impressed with what I’ve heard. And it isn’t just what people said, it’s how they said it. You know they were speaking truthfully.

“This is a beautiful day, and I’m alive to see the Extension Service moving in this direction. I’ll be grinning about this for a long time. It tells you that the thing we went through was not wasted, and we’re reaping the benefits now.”

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at January 8, 2010 08:47 AM