Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, one of the city's best-known church and civic leaders, was ordered yesterday in D.C. Superior Court to pay a woman parishioner $60,000 for calling her "the old devil" during a church service.
A jury award for slander went to Ozora E. Salmon, a 60-year-old widow who has been a member of Williams' Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ at 1130 New Jersey Ave. NW for nearly three decades.
The dispute between Salmon and the bishop arose over property owned by Salmon adjacent to Williams' church. Williams reportedly was anxious to buy that property to expand his church.
In the suit she filed in 1977, Salmon asserted that she was fired as church secretary after she resisted efforts by Williams and the church to have the property she owned condemned by the city. The land involved included two lots next to the church that, according to the suit, the church wanted for a new building and a parking lot.
Salmon, who said she has been a member of Williams' church for 28 years, told the jury that she had sung in the church's choir, had been a member of the "Willing Workers Club" and had sold chicken dinners, candy and cases of grapefruit to raise money for various church projects.
"I always did what I could to come up with a good financial report," she said.
Salmon testified that her husband, Isaac, a deacon of the church, died of cancer in 1964, leaving her the property, including a restaurant, adjacent to the church.
When she was fired as church secretary, Salmon testified, she attempted to earn a living by operating her restaurant. But she told the court that Williams told members of the congregation from the pulpit not to patronize the restaurant.
"The restaurant was about 80 feet from the church, but I noticed that my business kept dropping," Salmon testified. "I knew most of the 2,000 to 3,000 member of the church from when I was the secretary. But people stopped coming in."
Under questioning by her attorney, Salmon testified she learned through friends that Williams urged members not to patronize "the devil's place on the corner."
The D.C. Land Development Agency condemned Salmon's property through eminent domain for expressway expansion, according to Salmon's attorney, Clement T. Cooper. The land is now being used as a parking lot.
Salmon testified she was fired by Williams and the church board of deacons on Feb. 6, 1975, for insubordination after she refused to sign a tax exemption form for the church that she believed was improperly drawn.
"It appeared that my property was being included as church property," she said. "I felt that if I signed tha form I would possibly be giving the church the right to take my property." She learned later, she said, that this was not the case.
Salmon testified she started working as the church's secretary in 1967. She worked 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a salary of $50 a week, court papers said.
Williams and five other members of the Bible Way Church denied in testimony that reference was made to Salmon and her restaurant business from the pulpit. Salmon and one other witness testified that there was such a reference. The witness for Williams, including leader of major auxilaries, said they attended church services regularly in 1974, '75 and '76 and never heard Williams refer to anyone as "the old devil."
Four of six allegations made by Salmon in her suit were dismissed in earlier proceedings. At the beginning of trial last week Judge Fred McIntyre dismissed a fifth count and left standing only the question of whether Salmon had been slandered.
Following yesterday's verdict, Salmon said that she would appeal the jury's decision because she feels she deserves a larger award in the case.
"I think that $60,000 is chicken feed compared to what I should have received," she told a reporter. "I should have received at least $800,000."
Williams attorneys, B. Michael Rauh and Andrew Ball, said it had not been decided whether Williams would appeal the jury's verdict.