A federal court jury determined Thursday that racial discrimination had blocked a black woman from purchasing a home in a predominantly white neighborhood in Amherst last year.
The all-white, six-member jury awarded $8,540 in damages to Isadora Bluford, a grandmother and Buffalo hospital worker who contended that her civil rights had been violated by a series of threatening telephone calls that forced her to back out of a deal to buy a home on Marion Road in the Eggertsville area.
Rita Evelt, who lives next door to the home nearly purchased by Mrs. Bluford, must pay the damages. Mrs. Evelt was the defendant in a lawsuit filed in August by Mrs. Bluford and Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Buffalo fair-housing advocacy group commonly known as HOME.
The jury also awarded $250 to HOME. Mrs. Bluford and HOME had sought a total of $425,000 in damages.
"This verdict sends out a message that racial discrimination will not be tolerated," said Dan D. Kohane, attorney for Mrs. Bluford.
Jurors deliberated for about three hours before returning the verdict to U.S. Magistrate Edmund F. Maxwell. After the award was announced, one of the jurors walked up to Mrs. Bluford in the courtroom and hugged her. "There was some disagreement about the money award, but none about the verdict," said Jim Bulger of Eden, the jury's foreman. "This was a difficult case for everybody involved. It made a black eye for everybody."
David G. Jay, Mrs. Evelt's attorney, said his client was disappointed at the verdict but was relieved that the award was not higher.
"The jury was modest and reasonable," Jay said.
Mrs. Bluford, a widow, contended that in March 1988, she had been forced to back out of a contract to buy a home on Marion Road after Mrs. Evelt circulated rumors that the house would be burned down and that the Ku Klux Klan would become involved if a black were to buy the property.
A hospital worker in Buffalo for 20 years, Mrs. Bluford told the jury that she wanted to move to the Eggertsville area because the neighborhood around her Bissell Avenue home was becoming a high-crime area.
Testimony in the three-day trial revolved around a series of phone calls in which Mrs. Evelt told real estate agents and a co-worker of Mrs. Bluford's that the Marion Road house Mrs. Bluford wanted was in danger.
In a summary statement to the jury Thursday, Jay described his client as a "Good Samaritan" who made the calls only as a warning.
Jay repeated Mrs. Evelt's contention that one neighbor, Arthur Domino, had told her that the house should be "blown up and burned" to prevent any black from moving in. Mrs. Evelt was in a wheelchair at the time, Jay said, and was worried that her home also would start on fire.
"She intentionally did not want to harm anybody. She was simply worried," Jay said. "It was obsessive. She'd worry and worry. It was like 'The sky is falling.' "
Jay also criticized HOME for counseling Mrs. Bluford to file the suit without questioning Mrs. Evelt directly about the purpose of her phone calls.
Kohane, representing Mrs. Bluford and HOME, said the calls were intended as threats to keep blacks out of the neighborhood. He noted that Domino had denied talking about blowing up the house and that other neighbors also had denied racist remarks attributed to them by Mrs. Evelt.
"It's the same old story; it's always someone else's fault," Kohane said of Mrs. Evelt's defense. "There are 15 'someone elses' at fault here."
In sometimes-heated testimony, Domino and other Marion Road residents accused Mrs. Evelt of conducting a one-woman crusade to keep blacks out of the neighborhood and then trying to implicate others.
Kohane said one witness had testified that Mrs. Evelt used a racial slur while complaining that the black woman intended to move into the house next door.
The $57,000 home has since been sold to a white family. Mrs. Bluford now lives in a different suburb.
Mrs. Bluford smiled when the verdict was read by Maxwell.
As she left the courtroom, her eyes were misty. "I'm glad I did it," she told Kohane.
Mrs. Bluford declined to speak to a reporter about the verdict. Kohane and Scott Gehl, executive director of HOME, described her as a proud but very private person who has been devastated by the dispute.
"All she wanted was a place where she could mind her own business and put up her feet at the end of the day," Kohane said. "Isn't that the American dream?"