Jacques Hughes: Why He Had to Challenge the City Over a Noose Hung in the Courthouse
For Hughes and Hill, two African-American men then both in their 50s, the joke that amused Kraft and other white sheriff's employees was anything but funny. After trying in vain to get Sheriff James Murphy to publicly address the issue, Hughes and Hill filed suit against the sheriff's department in 2007, charging Murphy with operating a "racially hostile" work environment. This month a St. Louis jury of 10 white jurors and two black jurors agreed with the plaintiffs, awarding Hughes $475,000 for his claims and Hill $375,000.
Recently Daily RFT interviewed Hughes about the significance of the noose and why he felt he had to challenge the sheriff on the issue. Our conversation follows...
Daily RFT: Tell us about that day -- July 18, 2006 -- when you saw that noose in the courthouse.
Jacques Hughes: I was on lunch break and my wife and I were driving to a restaurant. That's when Patrick called me up and said I had to come back. He had something I had to see. I was like, What's the big deal? He wouldn't tell me. We turned around and met Patrick outside the courthouse. He had a photo of the noose on his phone. I was at a loss for words. My wife and I returned to lunch and didn't really say anything during our meal. It was awkward. When I returned to work, I had to see this myself. I went down to the basement. Kraft had removed the noose from the ceiling and was holding it in his hand. Now I'm a grown man, but I got to say, the first thing that stuck my heart was fear. I automatically started backing up. There was a knot in my stomach and a bitter taste in my mouth. The next emotion, though, was anger. I was seething. I turned around and walked away. I went back to my assigned courtroom and told my co-workers. They couldn't believe it. I went to Sheriff Murphy's office to talk about it. But he was on vacation. The next day I took my complaint to the head of internal affairs. His name is also James Murphey -- spelled with an EY. Everyone calls him EY not to confuse him with the sheriff. Anyway, I told him how my great-grandfather was a slave. How I grew up with stories from my grandparents about lynchings. My grandparents had a cross burned in their front yard when they moved to Edwardsville. My father was something like six or seven years old at the time. I told EY that the sheriff needed to aggressively deal with this. I said that the sheriff had been soft in the past on racial issues. Murphey disagreed. He was more interested in the fact that someone had called one of the news stations to complain about the noose. But that wasn't my concern.
How did this escalate to the point of a lawsuit?
A couple days later -- July 24 -- Pat and I met with EY and Lt. Kraft to discuss what happened. Kraft and I had always gotten along. I never had a problem with him, but he just didn't understand the impact that joke had. And that's really the root of the problem. Everyone likes to joke around to some degree at their jobs. It makes the day go by. It makes work more enjoyable. But my question was this: How had the sheriff's department gotten to the point where people would think it's funny to hang a noose in a court of law? And to do it just a few blocks down the street from the Old Courthouse where they used to sell slaves and where Dred Scott argued for his freedom!? At that July 24 meeting I again told EY that the sheriff needed to be aggressive. We had had another incident in the department where a black colleague was referred to as "porch monkey" and it was never investigated. Pat and I asked that the sheriff make a statement that the department would have a 'zero tolerance' policy on such behavior. We also asked that the sheriff send us to diversity training, so we could offer classes within the department. A week went by. Then a couple months with no response. So, in September I wrote Sheriff Murphy a letter saying that he still hadn't dealt with the issue and asked him if he'd sit down with me to discuss the matter. I'm still waiting for that response. Eventually it seemed the only way we'd get him to listen was with an attorney.
You ended up losing your job during this process and had your home foreclosed on. Do you have any regrets about the obstacles you faced the past four years pursuing this case?
One of our claims in the lawsuit was that Sheriff Murphy retaliated against us after we made our complaints. Patrick was switched to the graveyard shift after he sent the sheriff a letter in November 2006 asking him about the noose. I was fired in 2008 for violating the department's residency requirement. I've got to say, though, that a lot of other sheriff department employees weren't living in the city and the administration knew that. But the jury didn't agree that the sheriff retaliated against us. I guess I can't argue with that. But, yeah, it's been real hard the last few years. I'm blessed in that I have a loving wife and thee supportive children. My wife has been carrying us financially the last few years. As a man who tries to be the head of his family, that's hard. But you know, I've got a son who's about to go to college and I've been trying to teach him about being a person of integrity and quality and standing up for his beliefs. And how am I suppose to look him in the eye if I didn't practice what I preached? My family knew that this bothered me. They saw how it gnawed on me. Throughout this whole process Pat and I walked with a lot of fear and resolve.
What are you doing these days?
I'm a minister at church in Cahokia and have been for several years. It's an unpaid position and something I enjoy immensely. Since I left the sheriff's department I've also gone back to school. I've got a degree in sports and entertainment management from Fontbonne. And in December I'll be graduating from there with a masters in business management. I had an interview last week to be a financial planner. So, hopefully something will come about soon. It's been hard to find work these past few years. Imagine going to an interview and having to tell them that you were fired from your last job and you're suing your former employer. That doesn't get you asked back for many second interviews.
So have you collected yet on your $475k from the judgment?
No, but that would be nice. The case is still subject to appeal and other legal proceedings, so who knows when that will happen. The sad part is that this lawsuit never had to happen if the sheriff had given us 30 minutes of his time -- an hour, maybe -- to hear us out. He may have not agreed with us, but at least we'd know he heard us. That's not the way he handled it, though. He choose to disrespect us man to man, employee to employer and person to person -- not even acknowledging our existence. And in the end, it was the jury who said that Sheriff Murphy had allowed the department to become that way and would allow it to continue to be that way unless they made a statement to stop it.
Noose Trial: Attorney Recalls Four-Year Fight vs. St. Louis Sheriff's Department