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Art imitates life at LRCVB 

AT BOOK SIGNING: Mercedes Alexander (right)
  • 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.

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