A federal civil rights lawsuit alleges that Greater Bay Plumbing, a Sarasota business, fired its sole Black employee after he complained about racist behavior.
SARASOTA — James Shelley says he knows what racism is like. He also says he kept his mouth shut for a year until recent events prompted him to come forward.
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Like Bubba Wallace, the NASCAR driver, Shelley, too, says he found a noose in his employer’s garage. Shelley’s, however, was hanging from the rafters.
The noose was six feet off the ground, next to where Shelley put his tools every morning at Greater Bay Plumbing.
Shelley, who began as a plumbing assistant at the Sarasota-based company five months prior, was quickly surrounded by his white colleagues.
They laughed, he said.
"Try it out," someone said.
His former employer vehemently denied the allegations in an interview on Tuesday with the Herald-Tribune.
Shelley says the noose remained for 10 days. He passed by it every day on his way into work.
Though Shelley said he feared for his life, he didn’t quit because he needed the money and wanted a chance to build a career that had only just begun. When Shelley finally did complain, he was fired for doing so, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last year.
The federal lawsuit alleges that Jeffrey Sarmiento, the president and owner of Greater Bay Plumbing, was personally involved in intentional racial discrimination.
Sarmiento not only knew about the noose but did nothing to stop his employees from stringing it up in his garage, according to the lawsuit.
Sarmiento denies the claims in Shelley’s lawsuit. Reached by phone, he declined to comment on the specifics of the case because it is still active.
"It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment about the false claims that (Shelley) filed," Sarmiento said. "We are vigorously defending ourselves and are confident that the truth will come out through the legal process."
The case reached mitigation — meaning a discussion between the two sides that could avoid a trial — on June 16.
Shelley, 37, of Sarasota, says he went public with his experience this week after what appeared to be a noose was found in the garage stall of Wallace, a Black NASCAR driver, at a race in Alabama. Two weeks ago, Wallace successfully pushed the stock car racing series to ban the Confederate flag.
No charges will be filed in the NASCAR incident, federal authorities announced Tuesday, citing a lack of evidence that Wallace had been deliberately targeted.
An investigation determined that the rope used to pull down the door in the garage stall assigned to Wallace had been fashioned into a noose-style loop months earlier, before anyone could have known which driver would be assigned to that particular garage.
But Shelley nonetheless understands how the sight could have shaken Wallace.
"Until you go through this, you don’t understand how much it hurts," Shelley said. "I knew how he felt."
RELATED: Sarasota history replete with echoes of racial injustice
It is estimated by Tuskegee University, a private, historically Black school in Tuskegee, Alabama established by Lewis Adams and Booker T. Washington, that 4,743 people were lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968. There are six known lynchings in Manatee County.
Shelley grew up in Manatee County and is the nephew of Booker High School principal Rachel Shelley.
A first team all-state running back as a senior at Southeast High School, he held the single season rushing record in 2001. He was in the newspaper almost every week. Other than on the football field, Shelley said he likes to keep to himself.
Now married and a father of three, Shelley wanted to build a career after working for a time at UPS.
Sarmiento hired Shelley on the spot, shortly after they met in December 2018, Shelley says. He was excited to begin his career as a plumbing assistant. If he went back to school, he’d have his license within two years.
"It wasn’t long until they were acting funny and weird," Shelley said of his coworkers.
Racial discrimination permeated the workplace, his lawsuit alleges. His white co-workers repeatedly made racist jokes and comments toward Shelley.
In one instance, Shelley’s colleagues pointed to a box of doughnuts, separated by color, Shelley told the Herald-Tribune.
"Oh James, we have all the black doughnuts on the left and the white doughnuts on the right," a coworker allegedly told him.
In another, employees at Greater Bay told Shelley he was the first Black person the shop dog had ever seen.
While Shelley never received an official performance review, his supervisors told him he was slow and he lacked ambition. It later became clear they were trying to force him to quit, he said.
Shelley first discovered the noose in early May 2019. In a photo time stamped May 9, a rope can be seen hanging from the ceiling. In the background are several Greater Bay Plumbing work vans.
"It wasn’t the first time I experienced racism in my life," Shelley said. "But this is the first time I’ve said ‘that’s enough.’"
It took Shelley several weeks to tell his wife, Nicole, and his three children.
"How do you tell them their father found a noose?" Shelley said. "That’s not the kind of conversation you want to have as a father."