WHITE NOISE

The appointment of a senior executive of the discrimination-claim-plagued Adam's Mark chain to a leadership position in the St. Louis County NAACP stirs outrage

The St. Louis-based Adam's Mark hotel chain has a poor track record when it comes to treatment of African-Americans. Since 1994, federal juries have awarded nearly $10 million to plaintiffs who have filed racial-discrimination claims against HBE Corp., which owns the string of 21 upscale hotels.

Last year, a jury in St. Louis awarded a black room-service waiter more than $5 million. The waiter claimed his race played a role in his firing after he failed to get a promotion and complained about it. The hotel chain appealed the ruling, and the case was subsequently settled out of court. In 1994, another federal jury awarded $4.8 million to two managers of the same hotel in downtown St. Louis. One said he was fired because he was black. His supervisor, who was white, said he was terminated when he objected to the black manager's dismissal.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals slashed that award by 90 percent, but the appeals court agreed the hotel needed punishment. During trial, witnesses testified that hotel managers would not stock liquors preferred by blacks, put blacks in jobs where they wouldn't be seen by guests and refused to book black conventions in succession to avoid the appearance of catering too much to a black clientele. The trial judge ordered the hotel to hire a neutral third party to make sure the hotel obeyed anti-discrimination laws.

No wonder the national NAACP has a dim view of Adam's Mark. The national office put the chain on a boycott list last year. For reasons not entirely clear, the boycott was quickly lifted. But that doesn't mean, say national and local NAACP leaders, that Adam's Mark has seen the light.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when Fred Kummer III, senior vice president of Adam's Mark and son of Fred Kummer, the CEO of HBE, not only joined the St. Louis County chapter of the NAACP but was subsequently appointed — by Esther Haywood, the chapter president — to the chapter's executive committee.

"I appointed him — in a hurry," says Haywood. "We need more Mr. Kummers. We are grateful. He has a very vivacious personality."

He also has a lot of money. Haywood is quick to point out that Kummer joined the chapter last winter as a lifetime member, meaning that he contributed at least $1,000. Annual memberships cost $30. Haywood insists that Kummer's financial generosity had nothing to do with his quick rise to a leadership position. She also pooh-poohs criticism of Adam's Mark, even if the hotel has discriminated against minorities.

"As a member of a civil-rights organization, I hope and pray that if there are problems with the corporation, it will be settled, handled, and there will be a change if there's a need," Haywood says. "Why not give them a chance? I just believe that if I do wrong and pray and ask God to forgive me, he might give me a little spanking, but he's going to look over me and let me have another chance."

Ina Boon, treasurer of the county chapter and a former top NAACP official at the regional and national levels, recruited Kummer. She says the NAACP is a big tent, though she concedes the discrimination lawsuits and criticism of Adam's Mark by national NAACP officials may have helped convince Kummer to join the NAACP.

"Why is this such a big deal?" Boon asks. "We are involving as many people as we can. We involve them because we are interested in everybody being a part of the structure of freedom, justice and equality. That's what we're all about."

Amen, says Kummer. Lost lawsuits notwithstanding, Kummer says Adam's Mark treats minorities just like everybody else. Rather than start out as an annual member, Kummer says, he became a lifetime member of the county chapter to make a statement. "I guess you could say we're putting our money where our mouth is," Kummer says.

Contrary to popular perception, Kummer says his family hasn't always been rich. He recalls a childhood spent in the Meacham Park area, a predominantly black neighborhood in Kirkwood that has essentially been wiped out to make way for commercial development. Now, as an NAACP leader, Kummer says, he can give the organization a unique viewpoint.

"I actually learned how to ride my bike riding the streets of Meacham Park," Kummer said. "I can give perspective in a firsthand way, both from a person who is very fortunate to have a very successful father and as one who very much started out in a struggling middle-class family. You can never actually walk in other people's shoes. While I can never walk in a black person's shoes, they can likewise never walk in the shoes of a white person."

Kummer says one of his goals is to increase membership in the county chapter. "It has a very, very small membership, which absolutely surprised me," Kummer says. "The real strength of the organization is based on the strength and vitality of its membership."

As for how active Kummer has been in the county chapter, perspectives differ. Haywood says Kummer has been a regular at monthly executive- committee meetings. "Mr. Kummer has been very, very good at making his meetings," Haywood says. "I don't know how he does it. Sometimes he comes in from the airport to the meetings. I can't say it enough. He's a serious member."

Kummer is more modest. He says he's "unfortunately" made just two executive-committee meetings since he joined the leadership ranks in March. The most recent was held last week at HBE's corporate headquarters in Creve Coeur.

Regardless of Kummer's NAACP membership, Adam's Mark's problems with African-Americans have continued.

On May 20, five blacks who were guests at the Daytona Beach Adam's Mark during Black College Reunion last April sued the hotel chain in federal court, claiming a myriad of racial misdeeds: Black guests were required to wear bright-orange wristbands; friends who weren't registered had to buy wristbands for $50 each; the hotel required a $100 damage deposit and $300 deposit for access to room minibars; it also required them to pay a $25 deposit to turn on their room telephones. No such requirements were placed on white guests, according to the plaintiffs.

The hotel has denied any wrongdoing, but the national NAACP office in Baltimore says Adam's Mark shouldn't be patronized, as a response to the pending litigation in Florida.

NAACP officials outside the St. Louis County chapter are aghast at Kummer's leadership role. "It would never happen here," says Charles W. Cherry, president of the Daytona Beach NAACP chapter.

Nor would it happen in the St. Louis city chapter, say both the past and current presidents. "Personally, I think it's a bunch of crap," says Charles Mischeaux, the past president, who adds that he worked for eight years to make peace with the hotel chain. "Nothing's changed. I don't think they've mended their ways."

James Morgan, current president of the city chapter, says he believes Kummer's position in the county chapter is an attempt to buy respectability. He fears Kummer's acceptance by the county chapter may undercut NAACP anti-discrimination efforts. "I have no control over what the St. Louis County branch does," Morgan says. "But I feel that in order for us to be a strong organization, we need to work together."

Morgan's discomfort is so strong that he insisted that a group photograph taken during a reception at last month's national NAACP convention in New York not be publicized because he appeared in the picture along with Kummer, who attended the convention as a delegate from the county chapter. Morgan says he did not recognize the hotel executive until it was too late.

"When I found out who he was, I was clear I did not want that picture published because I did not want to give anyone the impression that I had any type of relationship with the Adam's Mark hotel," Morgan says. "I told Mr. Kummer that had I known who he was, I would not have been in a photograph with him."

So why would the St. Louis County chapter welcome Kummer when so many other NAACP leaders won't even visit his hotels? The answer may lie with Ina Boon — and perhaps with her son.

While Boon was regional NAACP director for 10 Midwestern states in 1994, her office held a diversity conference and job fair at the Kansas City Adam's Mark despite the pending discrimination lawsuit later won by the hotel managers in St. Louis. Three months later, just days after the jury awarded the fired managers nearly $5 million, Boon held an NAACP fundraiser at the St. Louis Adam's Mark. The county chapter also holds its annual dinner at the St. Louis Adam's Mark.

Gentry Trotter, Boon's son, handles marketing for the St. Louis Adam's Mark through his firm Multi Media PR Group. He insists he had nothing to do with getting Kummer involved with the NAACP or into a leadership role. "Whoever's idea it was, I would like to claim it," Trotter says. "It's a brilliant move to get white folk in the corporate community involved. You always want to integrate an organization."

Trotter distances himself from his own mother.

"People assume in this narrow-minded community that mothers and sons talk all the time," Trotter says. "I don't talk about my business. She doesn't talk about her business. Like a good son, when my mother calls me up, I try to get off the phone as quick as possible. If she was trying to tell me she was trying to do something with Fred, I must have cut her off."

It's hard to say whether anyone's buying that.

"The facts are what they are, and people can draw their own conclusions," Morgan says.

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