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African American frat alumni allege racism in hotel fracas

Downtown's Westin Convention Center hotel has become the target of a boycott by black organizations -- with national implications -- after an organization of black fraternity alumni were forced to end a fundraising event after hotel management complained of noise.


On Oct. 25, during the University of Pittsburgh's homecoming weekend, the Omicron Alumni Association (for Pittsburgh members of the black Greek fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha) held a fundraising banquet and social in a Westin hospitality suite that event organizer Vaughn Clagette says was intended to help fund the fraternity group's scholarships. Besides the small crowd of 25-30, Clagette says the only other sources of sound were a CD Walkman hooked up to desktop speakers and a television. The guests were in their 30s, 40s and 50s and were all professionals -- among them lawyers, military veterans, a judge and Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University professors and administrators as well as -- to the likely chagrin of the hotel's public relations department -- an investigator for the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, Lyle Wood. Wood says he believes the hotel's handling of their group -- who were all black -- had to do with their race.


"If you can find other instances where other groups at the hotel are perceivably acting up and having parties and they are not [asked to leave], then I think you see a disparity," says Wood, whose own inquiries revealed other parties in the hotel that weekend. "I believe we were not afforded the full benefit of the facilities there and we were not dealt with in a manner that non-African Americans would" have been.


Neither the hotel's general manager, Joseph Kane, nor any other local Westin official would comment, referring City Paper to its corporate parent, the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide chain.


Wood has already assisted in filing a state complaint. The Commission will send its own arbitrators to investigate the issue if it isn't settled to the fraternity group's satisfaction. Clagette says he called the hotel's Kane, simply to give his side of the story, and that he wrote to the hotel's corporate consumer affairs division, then circulated the hotel's response to the rest of his fraternity group. Some group members subsequently wrote or called the Westin to say not only would they no longer do business with the chain but that they would also urge other organizations to which they belong and the companies where they work to cancel scheduled conferences and conventions.


Clagette says that, even though his group complied with the hotel manager's request to shut down their event, Westin's staff dealt with his party in a "discriminatory and unprofessional" manner. Further, Clagette says, the hotel's staff -- up to the corporate level, to which he brought his concerns -- have been "dismissive," "flippant" and "unapologetic" in their responses.


In a letter from Westin's national corporate offices to Clagette after their own investigation of the matter, hotel officials said they were "satisfied that [their] security staff followed the noise policy of the Hotel appropriately" and that "several guests had filed complaints about the noise ... The hotel had to compensate these other guests for the excessive noise."


Clagette says hotel officials never attempted to talk to him to find an alternative way to handle the noise, which he disputes was even a problem. He says the hotel's night manager's first encounter with the party was an "aggressive and enraged punitive one." Clagette says the manager simply came to the room and hollered, "This event needs to end right now!" He then began threatening to evict guests from the hotel for not moving fast enough, says Clagette.


"The very thing he was trying to quell -- the noise resonating to the guest rooms -- was now taken into the hallway, where there's a huge commotion between himself and the different guests as they left the suite," says Clagette. "If there were noise complaints, then it came from that interaction."


Along with the fraternity alum group, the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association, Astar Technology Group and Astar Communications (of Detroit) and Pitt's African American Alumni Council -- all of whom have members or employees nationwide -- have announced they were canceling scheduled events for next year with the Starwood hotel chain, which owns Westin, Sheraton, Four Points Sheraton, and W hotels. Pitt's African American Alumni Council has also urged Pitt's Alumni Relations office and Athletic department to do the same.


"What frustrates me most is this would have been over with that following Monday had the general manager not given his opinion without listening to our side of the story," says Clagette. "It left me with the sense that he was not legitimately concerned about our complaints."


"You're in the business of serving hospitality to guests and there wasn't a less confrontational way to deal with this?" says Wood of the hotel. "I'm proud of how our group handled themselves. If it was years ago their response would have been different. This was embarrassing and humiliating, kind of like they were saying 'I don't care how far you've come, you're still a bunch of niggers here.'"


Fraternity group members and Starwood representatives, including their vice president of diversity, are finally meeting this week to discuss the issue, but Wood is suspicious, saying, "Westin wouldn't even consider what we had to say until the emails and phone calls started. That's when they started taking it serious -- when they saw the cancellations and pull-outs."


Clagette says there are four things they need for closure: an apology, compensation for ruining their scholarship fundraising efforts, a refund for the suite and a close look at the local hotel's minority-hiring practices. Both Wood and Clagette said the only blacks they saw employed at the hotel were in housekeeping or as bellboys and both wonder whether there are any blacks in management or decision-making positions at the Westin.


Nadine Ayala, director of corporate public relations for Starwood, says that well over half of the chain's total workforce are minorities (counting women) but did not respond by City Paper press time to say what percentage are black, what percentage of Pittsburgh's Westin employees were minorities or black, or how many of either are in management. The only statement Ayala would make specifically about the incident is: "We're sorry for the disappointing experience and we thank them for bringing it to our attention." Ayala was not aware of the boycott.

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