The Montgomery County NAACP has harshly criticized the nomination of John P. Hewitt to the planning board, saying that Hewitt failed to dismantle a segregated work area at a public facility while he was parks director from 1957 to 1971.
"We would like the nomination withdrawn," county NAACP President Roscoe Nix said Tuesday, citing a segregated dressing area that existed until 1974 at the Meadowbrook maintenance yard in Chevy Chase. "Next to slavery, segregation is the most painful thing we have endured in this country."
County Executive Sidney Kramer, who on Monday nominated Hewitt, a 64-year-old Silver Spring real estate agent, and Olney civic activist Carol Henry to the planning board, said he had ordered an investigation and found "no linkage between Jack Hewitt and the allegations that were made."
"On the basis of my knowledge of this man for at least 15 to 20 years, at no time have there been any allegations until now as it relates to his being biased or prejudiced," Kramer said.
The nominations are Kramer's first to the county's seven-member planning board, which has the authority to approve subdivision, site and master development plans. If confirmed to four-year terms in July by the County Council, Hewitt and Henry would assume their posts next month and receive $12,600 a year.
The changing room was mentioned in a 1974 complaint by eight county workers to the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Segregation in public facilities had been banned 10 years earlier, by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
According to the workers' complaint, a wall divided the room into black and white areas. The complaint eventually led to an agreement that increased hiring and promotion opportunities for minorities at the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
According to Montgomery County Attorney Paul McGuckian, who investigated the NAACP complaints, no signs were posted at the facility, but he said that "it was clear" among workers that the changing areas were racially divided.
McGuckian said Hewitt's name was not mentioned in the EEOC case file, and it was unclear whether Hewitt knew of the segregated facility.
Hewitt denied in an interview Tuesday that the dressing room was segregated, saying that different workers sat on each side of the room by choice. "I guess friends sat with friends. That's all there is," he said.
"I don't even recall the wall," Hewitt added. "All I know is that under my direction, there wasn't any segregation."
Nix ridiculed Hewitt's suggestion that workers separated by choice. "He's saying the same people who filed a complaint about segregation willingly segregated themselves," Nix said. "It's ridiculous."
"He's taking the line that he didn't know, when he was in charge," Nix said, calling it "a condition that happened on his watch."
Nix said the appearance of indifference to racism should have precluded Hewitt's nomination. "There are so many people who have no association with this, why pick someone who will raise fears?"
Kramer said that others, including County Council members, could be equally held responsible for the segregated facility. If Hewitt had been to blame, he said, a complaint should have been raised earlier. "There's a certain unfairness in raising an issue 20 years later."