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City Reporter



Black and White

Student sues U of M for racial discrimination.

By Mary Cashiola

When Bettye Jefferson decided to attend the University of Memphis in her mid-40s, she was concerned about the age difference.

"My biggest fear," she says, "was not fitting in with the 18- and 19-year-olds."

But age, she says, wasn't a problem. Race was.

Last week, Jefferson filed a lawsuit against the university alleging racial discrimination and asking for $8.5 million in damages. She claims that a graduate student segregated black and white students and taught with her back to the black students.

Jefferson returned to school after she suffered an injury and was told by her doctor that she couldn't go back to her job at MLGW.

"I was always into home decorating. I figured I needed to be retrained anyway, [so] I might as well do something I enjoy," she says. "My first two years [at the U of M] were wonderful. I didn't have any complaint."

But in the spring semester of 2000, all that changed. One of the classes for her degree in consumer sciences didn't have enough chairs. Jefferson says that when the class first began meeting, she had a seat, but one of the other black students always had to stand.

At the fourth class meeting, Jefferson says her seat was taken by a white student and she had to stand for the one-and-a-half-hour class. She also stood during the next class. The teacher told her to deal with it herself.

"The next class was the day of the first test, and I got to class 30 minutes early," she says. "I put my books out and was studying for the exam."

When the student who had taken her seat earlier came into the room, according to Jefferson that student became upset. Jefferson tried to ignore her, but then the student and a friend pushed Jefferson's books and papers to the floor and tried to tip the chair over. Jefferson says they then pulled her chair -- with her in it-- away from the table.

The lawsuit alleges that the teacher saw the entire incident and said nothing to the students. She said that Jefferson was a problem in the classroom and she was taking steps to get her removed.

"I never had any interaction with this woman or anyone else in the class," says Jefferson, explaining her shock. "At that point, I just wanted to leave. It was my last class of the day so I went home and tried to figure out what to do."

In an overlapping incident in another class taught by the same graduate student, Jefferson says that by the second class meeting all the white students sat on one side of the room and black students on the other. In between were two empty rows of desks.

"She would stand between the two empty rows and teach the class that way, with her back to the black students," says Jefferson. The students were also randomly assigned into groups of five and six for a class project.

"We were all new in class so we didn't know anybody yet," says Jefferson. "She read the names of the people in each group. ... When group C was formed, it was the five black students in the class."

The lawsuit alleges that Jefferson met with members of the U of M's judicial affairs, affirmative action, and the department of education to rectify the situation.

"Their solution for me was to not come back to campus, to take my classes from home," says Jefferson.

When that didn't work out, the school gave her the option of withdrawing or getting an F in her courses. She took the Fs but ended up withdrawing in order to enroll back in class last semester. When school began again this month, she found herself in the same classes that had caused her problems, taught by the same graduate student.

Because of the pending litigation, the university could not specifically comment but issued an official statement: "The University of Memphis regrets that Ms. Jefferson has misinterpreted the events and actions she described in the lawsuit. At the time Ms. Jefferson raised the issues that were of concern to her, representatives of the University worked diligently and in good faith to address her concerns, and we believed those concerns had been resolved."

The statement goes on to say that there is no basis for the lawsuit and that the school does not tolerate racial discrimination.

Jefferson is currently without legal representation and filed the lawsuit herself.

"It's hell now. If I have to stand up in court and represent myself, that's what I'll do."

Medicare 2002

Special services may be difficult to access.

By Janel Davis

Medicare, the health insurance program for people 65 or older, younger than 65 with disabilities, or those with end-stage renal disease, has implemented new guidelines and assistance services, but some enrollees say they are having trouble getting the information they need.

The assistance services are beneficial to seniors like Les Birchfield, whose wife Josephine has been a Medicare recipient for 14 years. For the Birchfields, whose monthly income is less than $1,700, programs like the Prescription Drug Assistance Program, Medicare Savings Program, and Medicare supplemental insurance policies will greatly reduce the strain on their already stretched income.

"These programs would help us out a lot. I know we qualify for them," says Birchfield. "Medicare has always been good to us, but I can't find anybody who seems to know anything about this."

The Flyer discovered that services like these can be difficult to obtain. In Birchfield's case, after several phone calls to the main number (1-800-Medicare) and weeks of waiting for responses, he was still unable to get the information he needed. Calls placed by the Flyer resulted in three disconnections and, when finally connected, waiting 16 minutes before speaking with a customer-service representative.

Shannon Whitt, a representative with Medicare's reference center, admits that Birchfield's situation is not uncommon. "When people call the Medicare information line, they can sometimes be on hold for several minutes before finally getting an answer," she says, "and then the customer-service representative may not have the answer."

She recommends that enrollees ask for help from the reference center. Calls are returned in three days or less, and a conference call is set up with the enrollee and the Medicare assistance office, with the reference center representative acting as the intermediary.

Many of the Medicare recipients in the state are also available for Medicaid services. Medicare remains their primary insurer with Medicaid picking up home health care, transportation (if eligible), and prescription-drug costs. When TennCare replaced Medicaid in 1994, it became responsible for assisting with these costs.

Lola Potter, TennCare's public information officer, says TennCare has done its part. In addition to contributing to the above costs, she says TennCare also assists Medicare recipients with premiums for hospital and insurance. "This fiscal year, we budgeted $136 million to assist with Medicare premiums," she says. Potter says there are no assistance time limits, but the recipients must recertify each year. She recommends that recipients go through their local department of health or human-services offices for these services instead of the TennCare information line, which can be difficult to access.

Seniors can also get Medicare and other insurance information from the Insurance Office for Senior Assistance (800-525-2816). The state agency refers callers to other agencies, and there is no charge for the service.

And the Grammy Goes To . . .

Nominations include local groups.

By Chris Herrington

Nominations were announced last week for the 44th Annual Grammy Awards, with a strong local presence among the honored.

Leading the local nominees is hard-rock band Saliva, who broke open nationally last year with their major-label debut album, Every Six Seconds. The band was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance for the single, "Your Disease."

Saxophonist and Memphis native Kirk Whalum was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Unconditional, a category in which he was nominated last year as well, and for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "There You'll Be," a track from the album.

Other local nominees came from likely areas. All sides of the city's fertile Christian music scene were honored. Local studio/label Ardent Records was recognized in the Best Rock Gospel Album category for Big Tent Revival Live, from the Christian Contemporary band who records for the Ardent label. All About Him (Jesus) from O'Landa Draper's Associates (Patrina Smith, choir director) received a nod in the Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album category. And, finally, God Is Love: The Gospel Sessions by Ann-Margret & the Jordanaires and the Light Crust Doughboys with James Blackwood for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album. The Jordanaires were once Elvis Presley's backup singers, while Blackwood hails from the city's most prominent gospel family.

Not surprisingly, there are strong Memphis connections with two of the six nominees for Best Traditional Blues Album. James "Blood" Ulmer's locally recorded Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions was nominated, as was Here and Now, the comeback album from area legend Ike Turner. Meanwhile, former Memphian and Stax scholar Rob Bowman was nominated in the Best Album Notes category for his liner notes to The Stax Story.

But the biggest area presence of all will likely come from Al Green, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony, scheduled for Wednesday, February 27th, in Los Angeles. A complete list of nominees can be found at

This year's local haul compares well with last year's, when Memphis-connected nominees included the North Mississippi Allstars, Whalum, Blackwood, 3 Doors Down, and the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir.

CBU To Hold Ostrander Memorial

A memorial service for Memphis' most beloved actor, Jim Ostrander, will be held at the CBU Theatre on the campus of Christian Brothers University Sunday, February 3rd, at 7 p.m.

Ostrander ended his long, debilitating battle with cancer of the jaw on Monday, January 14th. According to his wife, Shirley, CBU was chosen because that is where Ostrander began his acting career, which lasted more than three decades. Ostrander personally requested that his memorial be a joyous celebration of life, and everyone whom this kind, immensely talented treasure ever touched is encouraged to attend. -- Chris Davis

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