Washington joins exodus
Among 74 Duluth city workers retiring by the end of 2006 was the highest-ranking black employee. Claudie Washington, 62, retired Sunday after more than 27 years with the city -- 21 as the city's purchasing agent. He recently recounted his career ...
Among 74 Duluth city workers retiring by the end of 2006 was the highest-ranking black employee.
Claudie Washington, 62, retired Sunday after more than 27 years with the city -- 21 as the city's purchasing agent. He recently recounted his career in government -- and racial prejudice that he says remains in Duluth.
"I estimated I probably purchased more than a billion dollars' worth of goods and services over the length of my career," he said.
Washington always did his best to get the best deal possible for the city, Mayor Herb Bergson said.
"He also tried to make sure that local vendors, as well as minority or disadvantaged vendors, were given a chance to do business with the city," Bergson said. "He is very active in the community, particularly with the NAACP. ... He will be missed."
Interim human resources manager John Grandson said Washington and the deputy city attorney were probably the two people most knowledgeable about the rules that govern purchasing.
"It's very, very complicated," Grandson said. "We spent the last half-year writing new policies and picking Claudie's brain so we can continue on without him. In a nutshell, he's very knowledgeable."
Despite his years of overseeing city purchases, most people know Washington less for his work as a city employee and more for his role as president of the area National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- a position he will hold at least through the end of the year.
He became active in the NAACP in 1970, years before he came to work with the city.
"I got involved because I grew up in the South," Washington said. "I was in the military during much of the civil rights movement. There was not much activity where I was stationed. Recognizing the commitment that other people had made during the civil rights movement, I felt it was time for me to get involved."
Born and raised in Mississippi, Washington served eight years in the Air Force and worked for the University of Minnesota for nine years before beginning work as a purchasing assistant for the Duluth in 1979. He became purchasing agent in 1985.
"I've been that ever since," he said. "I've served longer than any other person in the position."
During those years, Washington said he felt the impact of racism. He had people go around or over him to avoid dealing with him. He felt resentment on the part of some co-workers who seemed to believe he was too active in the NAACP.
"Racism is alive and well in Duluth," he said. "People think racism is about hate. Institutional racism is about power and privileges."
Another sign of institutional racism in Duluth is how few minorities the city employs, Washington said.
"We need to actively recruit African-Americans and other people of color," he said. "I hear about the commitment to it, but I have not seen it in action. I have not seen any progress over the past 27 years."
Bergson said that the city hasn't hired many employees since he took office.
"I will continue to do my best to fill both upper and rank-and-file positions with minorities," Bergson said. "For several months, I had a person from the minority community as my chief administrative officer in Julio Almanza. Making conditions better for people of color was a top priority for me and Julio."
Grandson noted that the Civil Service Board examines the city's employment of minorities and women by occupational category at least once a year. Where minorities or women are under-represented, additional candidates from the employment list are certified to be interviewed when job openings are being filled.
But Duluth Human Rights Officer Meg Bye agrees that Duluth could do more to attract minorities.
"The city has not had a real focus on changing the systems that make it difficult to hire people of color," she said.
The problem goes beyond city government, she said.
"The second part that makes it difficult is that we ... are not seen as a community that is friendly and open to people who are different than those of us who have lived here forever," Bye said. "Because of that, qualified and good employees who might be people we would like to attract are not interested in moving to Duluth. We need to do some real work as a community to become more open and welcoming."
"Claudie has always been a person that folks turn to get a handle on what's happening in the community," Bye said. "I'll miss him around here."