HOUSTON — Only a few weeks ago, race relations had reached such a low point in the troubled east Texas town of Paris that federal Justice Department mediators were called in to try to bring together black and white citizens, but the public meeting quickly dissolved into rancor.
Now fresh racial tensions are erupting inside one of the town's biggest employers, the Turner Industries pipe fabrication plant, where black employees charge that hangman's nooses, Confederate flags and racist graffiti have been appearing throughout the workplace for months.
One worker, Karl Mitchell, took pictures of the offensive symbols in early February and filed a formal complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week. Other African-American employees assert that they've repeatedly complained about the racist symbols to their bosses, only to be ignored or told to keep quiet.
"Somebody had to step forward," said Mitchell, who also alleges a pattern of wage and promotion discrimination at the plant stretching back nearly two years. "They are so wide-open with [the racist displays] and so certain that African-Americans aren't going to say anything about it."
"All of us in management find all of that offensive," said John Fenner, the company's corporate general counsel. "We do not condone any displays of this type. I can promise you that in the event we uncover that any of our people participated in the display of any of those matters, they may very well lose their jobs."
Fenner also denied that blacks, who make up 11 percent of the Paris plant's 660 employees, are discriminated against in either pay or promotions.
The racial flare-up at Turner Industries comes just as Paris leaders were hoping to finally fall out of the spotlight after several troubling racial incidents focused national attention on the town of about 26,000.
"Obviously, this isn't going to play well," lamented Pete Kampfer, president of the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce, who said he e-mailed the troubling photographs to Turner officials in Baton Rouge last week as soon as he was alerted to them. "We've had a lot of recent racial discussions in Paris, and you better get a heads-up if you see another storm working."
Paris first drew national scrutiny in 2007, the year after a 14-year-old African-American girl, Shaquanda Cotton, was sentenced by a local judge to up to 7 years in a youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at Paris High School.
Three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for the more serious crime of arson.
Less than a month after a Tribune story contrasting the two cases triggered national civil rights protests and petition drives, Texas authorities ordered Shaquanda's early release from prison.
Then last year, a 24-year-old African-American man, Brandon McClelland, was slain, allegedly at the hands of two white men who authorities charge dragged him beneath a pickup truck until his body was nearly dismembered.
The accused men are awaiting trial for murder, but McClelland's family and civil rights leaders have pressed prosecutors to add hate-crime charges as well.