Woman hopes award sends message on racial attacks

A black woman who moved her family into a nearly all-white neighborhood in southwest Jefferson County and then endured months of racial taunts in 1990 has won an $87,000 judgment against two white men who tried to firebomb her house.

Last week's judgment is "by far" the largest housing-discrimination award ever in Kentucky and one of the larger awards in the country, said Galen Martin of the Fair Housing Council, a non-profit group that tracks discrimination settlements.

"I'm really happy about the victory and the judgment," said Lillye Clay, who fled with her five children from the Riverside Gardens neighborhood after the attack. "I'm wanting to send the message to people out there who are doing this that it's not only a criminal offense, but it's very expensive."

The attorneys involved from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "feel like it was a landmark case," said Linda Lipthrott, special assistant for public affairs in HUD's Atlanta regional office.

"It's a very high penalty judgment," and the case also is unusual because it involved discrimination by people from the area. rather than an action of a property owner against a renter.

"We're happy to see the case go in the direction that it did," Lipthrott said. "It lets people realize that the fair-housing law is there . . . (and) that people do have rights and that people can't take their rights from them."

The award was the result of a complaint Clay filed in 1990 with HUD, alleging a violation of the Fair Housing Code. On Dec. 7, an administrative law judge for HUD, Samuel A Chaitovitz, ordered the men who pleaded guilty to the attempted firebombing, Joseph Lashley and Mark D. Matthews, to pay

the family $67,000 - $25,000 to Clay; $10,000 to each of her four older children; and $2,000 to her youngest child, who was just a baby at the time of the attack. Chaitovitz also ordered Lashley and Matthews to pay $10,000 each in civil penalties to the U.S. government.

In his ruling, Chaitovitz found that Clay and her children had suffered both economic and emotional losses as a result of the racial harassment.

(Lashley and Matthews do not have phones listed under their names at the addresses listed in the ruling, so they could not be reached for comment yesterday.)

In December 1989, six months before the attempted firebombing, Clay had moved with her children into a rented home at 6503 Putman Ave. The house "was large and newly renovated; it had a big kitchen and spacious front and back yards," and was within walking distance of two grocery stores, Chaitovitz wrote.

But the Clay family was "continually harassed by neighbors," Chaitovitz found, stating that the family was called "niggers" and that some whites refused to let their children play with Clay's children.

On the night of June 1, 1990, Lillye Clay told police, she heard a thud against her house. The next morning, she found a firebomb with a singed wick outside.

In August 1990, Lashley, then 19, and Matthews, then 27, pleaded guilty in Jefferson Circuit Court to facilitation to arson and wanton endangerment. In September 1990 they were sentenced to three years and two years in prison, respectively.

For Clay, 38, and her five children, discrimination has continued to haunt them. The family has moved three times since the attempted firebombing, all to houses or apartments smaller and not as nice as the one from which they were forced to move. The children have had to switch schools repeatedly. And Clay says she and several of her children now are more suspicious and untrusting, of whites.

"Mentally, we have to deal with this for the rest of our lives," Clay said yesterday. One of her daughters, Sophia Pickett, refuses to play with white children and goes to her room when whites visit the home, Chaitovitz wrote in his ruling.

"The way I feel about white people is all of them are not alike," Lillye Clay said. "But I had a feeling that they weren't trustful, not very truthful."

Clay said she would like to use her $67,000 award - if she's successful in collecting the money - to buy a house.

Clay said her children - who range in age from 20-year-old Larry Pickett, a student at Berea College, to Jasmine Pickett, who is 2 - urged her to pursue the Fair Housing Act complaint.

"They wanted me to do something that was going to be for everyone to see," Clay said. "They wanted me to do something about it . . . so everybody in Kentucky would know."