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The punch bowl incident

What really happened that night at the Tampa Marriott Waterside when members of the Progressive National Baptist Convention walked out on their banquet? Eight months later, it's hard to tell who knows.

photo
[Times photo: Ken Helle]

By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002


Eight months ago, a black minister from Virginia pointed at a white waiter and accused him of spitting into a bowl of fruit punch.

Soon, 800 other members of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, worried by rumors their dinner food had been tainted as well, paraded out the front door of Tampa's Marriott Waterside hotel.

It was the March on Washington in tuxedos and evening gowns.

Politicians and business leaders scrambled to address allegations that Tampa had once again found a way to offend a large number of black visitors.

Controversy led to Florida Classic's departure
The incident at the Marriott Waterside was not the first time a prominent African-American group had found Tampa's hospitality wanting.
Hours of closed-door meetings failed to mollify the Baptists, whose leaders made it clear they would demand unspecified restitution. But for what offense exactly?

People didn't know what to make of the variety of stories circulating -- did the waiter spit into the punch or just touch it accidentally? And they wondered, too, how to view their less-than-perfect city. Was Tampa that racist?

As the Baptists left town two days later -- their allegations of racism lingering like a palm print on the city's face -- many people were left slack-jawed at the whirlwind of racial politics that had just played out before them.

Eight months have passed. The furor has long since subsided, and people have had a chance to reflect on what went on that week.

The incident involved three groups with seemingly good intentions -- a pro-business mayor concerned about improving his city's national reputation, a major hotel chain eager to satisfy its customers and a group of respected religious leaders with a history of preaching racial reconciliation. Certainly after eight months, they would have found a way to resolve a brief and painful chapter of their shared history.

Who among them wouldn't want to put all this behind them if they could?

* * *

In the hallway outside the Waterside's Grand Ballroom, flashes popped as distinguished men and women posed for photos with actor Danny Glover, the host of the banquet. Guests enjoyed the view of Harbour Island across the water as waiters ladled pink punch (nonalcoholic) from deep silver bowls into glass cups.

The banquet was meant to be the high point of the 40th anniversary of the PNBC's founding during the height of the civil rights struggle. The PNBC's birth was a radical event, a bold repudiation of the deeply conservative National Baptist Convention, whose president, Dr. J.H. Jackson, refused to give a platform to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Since then the PNBC had grown to an estimated 2.5-million members in 1,800 churches on two continents. With an operating budget of $2.2-million, the PNBC was growing and, unlike its former parent organization, free of scandal. The celebratory mood that night reflected the group's prosperity.

Gene Malone, a banquet captain, was one of the first employees to discover something was amiss.

He was about to open the doors to the dining room when, "I came across a guest in an upset manner.

"The guest alleged that another guest observed a staff member reach into a punch bowl and stick something inside," Malone said. "I asked if he saw this, and he said he did not, but went to get the guest who allegedly did.

"The gentleman returned with another man who claimed he had witnessed three servers by the punch bowl and that one had reached his hand into it and pulled out a ladle," Malone said.

Lisa Sprouse, another of the banquet captains, reported a different version.

"At approximately 6:25 p.m. one of my servers came up to me and said a guest would like to speak to me. . . . (The guest) alleged that he saw a server 'get a glass of punch, drink from it and dump it back into the punch bowl,' " Sprouse said.

Sprouse said the guest identified the three servers. She told the guest that she had removed the punch bowl, and that she would notify her supervisor.

Meanwhile, the same guest approached her supervisor, assistant maitre d' Keith Cramer.

"He told me that one of my servers . . . had done something to the fruit punch. He alleged one server took a sip of the punch and spit it back into the glass. Then the server poured the glass into the punch bowl while the other two were laughing."

Soon everyone was gathered in the serving aisle behind the banquet hall -- Cramer, Sprouse, Malone, the three waiters and several members of the PNBC, including the witness, who identified himself as Pastor Frederick Jones. At 37, Jones was the minister of a church in Orlean, a small town in Northern Virginia.

The waiters, all three of them Hungarians who had come to the United States to learn English and hotel management, gave a similar explanation: A ladle had fallen into the bowl, and one of them had plucked it out by the exposed tip of its handle.

Jones, backed by the other ministers, demanded the three waiters be fired immediately.

The hotel officials explained that the waiters would be sent home for the night and that an investigation was under way.

"This action was not satisfying to the group, and they demanded to see the manager," Malone said.

The doors to the dinner had opened, but PNBC leaders were already anxious that something had been done to their meals as well. They wanted to watch the servers put the food on the plates, so the hotel agreed to let two observers stand on either side of the line as the salmon and filet mignon were arranged on the china.

The program had started inside the dining room when the word was passed to the waiters not to serve the food.

Mary Scott, the Waterside's general manager, was not at the hotel. She was running near her home without a pager and could not be reached. After an hour, when Scott still had not arrived, Dr. C. Mackey Daniels, president of the PNBC, announced from the podium the group was leaving.

"I wasn't even aware there was a problem until everything stopped -- bam, just like that," said the Rev. A. Leon Lowery, whose church, Beulah Baptist in Tampa, was the host of the convention.

The first police officers, summoned to the Marriott by an anonymous call at 8:37 p.m., arrived to find dozens of people streaming onto Franklin Street, headed for the Hyatt, several long blocks north.

While officers at the Marriott gathered evidence (four punch bowls, a ladle and a sample of the punch) and tried in vain to find the one witness in the dispersing crowd, Daniels was addressing his membership at the Hyatt.

"The day is past when we spend our money and you kick us in the behind," Daniels said. "We served notice tonight on the city of Tampa, the mayor of Tampa, the Convention Bureau, the elected officials, that we are not second-class."

photo
[Times photo: John Pendygraft 2001]
The day after the incident last August, Dr. C. Mackey Daniels, center, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, addressed members about the events that prompted convention members to leave the Marriott Waterside hotel.

* * *

Spitting into food is not necessarily a crime in Florida -- maybe criminal mischief, prosecutors aren't sure.

But when the first calls started coming across the police radio, Sgt. Gerald Honeywell, the supervisor for the downtown area that night, sensed this situation had the makings of something "that could become bigger."

Honeywell called his shift commander, but he also made a call to the home of his friend Herman Walker, a black veteran detective in the Criminal Intelligence Bureau. One of Walker's standing assignments is to monitor local African-American groups and political activists. Honeywell figured this case was going to end up on Walker's desk sooner or later, and he might as well give him a heads up.

Walker agreed. He drove to the Hyatt from Thonotosassa, reaching the hotel about 9:30 p.m. Like the uniformed officers who arrived before him, Walker discovered a wall of silence.

A woman who identified herself as the attorney for the PNBC refused to give her name.

"She told us we weren't needed," Walker said. The Baptists would handle it themselves, she said, before asking the police to leave.

Walker tried to interview 10 or 12 people anyway.

"They would talk to you, everybody was very polite, no anger, but when you mentioned the incident they would say, 'We were asked not to talk about that,' " he said.

The police -- a dozen in all, from street cops to a deputy chief and every rank in between -- couldn't fathom the resistance they were meeting. Here they were taking a serious allegation seriously -- exactly what some in the black community have complained the police so rarely do -- and their efforts were for naught.

"I have never seen that in my life, that one person in a group could stop people from talking," Walker said. "I thought at that point that what they were guarding against was rumors and they were going to make available the person who had seen the incident.

"But then they said that wasn't going to happen either."

Honeywell said he was told no one from the PNBC would talk until Mayor Dick Greco appeared.

The mayor did come at about 11:30 p.m. Convention leaders were meeting in a room guarded by PNBC security guards wearing earpieces like Secret Service agents. They had already prevented Detective Walker from entering.

Greco waited in the hall for several minutes before he was allowed in -- alone. He emerged at quarter to 1 in the morning, tight-lipped, displaying none of his usual glad-handing good humor.

* * *

Shortly after midnight, as the mayor met with leaders of the PNBC, three Hungarian waiters wrote their statements on forms provided by the hotel.

Istvan Kovacs, at 23 the youngest of them and least proficient in English, gave an account of his central role in the affair:

"I was working at the reception. We was serving the punch together, and we was switched the station because it was very busy. My partner told me that one of the punches spoon slipt in the punch. I went to there and I saw that a bit shape was out from the punch and I was taking out from the (illegible word). I didn't take the hole spoon from the bowl, just left in there. After this happened I didn't serve nobody again. In 2 minute we took away the whole punch to the back aile. The punch was clear and I didn't make anything exchange in the quality of the punch." Then Kovacs offered some biographical detail he thought might help explain the situation:

"I am in practical training in the US. I'm working at the Westshore Marriott as a banquet server. I like my job and I like work with people, customers. I'm study at university in Hungary. I study catering and hotel management. If it is important, I am Catolic, but I don't practice my religion. I have been 5 months ago in U.S." Welcome to America, Istvan.

What happened over the next days showed how quickly the objectives of the different sides diverged.

The police pressed forward with their investigation, despite the resistance of the PNBC.

Calls were made to the forensics experts at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI in Washington in hopes a test existed that could determine if there were saliva in the punch sample. No, they were told, unless you have the portion of the punch with the saliva in it, which the police probably didn't.

The PNBC leaders did not slacken their pressure on local officials. Daniels proposed that the group end its convention early.

"We are not outlaws. We are not hoodlums. But we are people of God and will be treated as such," Daniels told reporters. "This is not a mom-and-pop operation. This is big business."

As leaders of the PNBC hastened to point out, their weeklong annual meetings usually draw 10,000 members to the host city, who spend approximately $1.8-million during that time.

City officials, hotel managers, the director of the convention and visitors bureau, and leaders of the local African-American community were eager to head off another blow to the city's less-than-sterling reputation. A meeting with the PNBC was called for Thursday afternoon.

For more than an hour, "The ministers were expressing their disappointments about what happened," said Curtis Lane, executive assistant to Mayor Greco. "We were listening very attentively to what they had to say, respecting their concerns."

Frustration, particularly on the part of hotel, had been mounting at the PNBC's refusal to cooperate with police.

"This has created a huge amount of chaos and controversy, and we still have not heard from the person who supposedly saw something," said Scott, the hotel's general manager.

But in the meeting that Thursday, Lane remembers the response to the PNBC's complaints was conciliatory.

"We all were apologetic," Lane said, before adding, "But what really were we apologizing for when we didn't really know what happened?"

At some point during the meeting, someone asked where the witness was. As if to prove how irrelevant the facts had become to the dispute, the one person who could explain what happened was not at the meeting.

Frederick Jones had checked out of the Marriott three hours before.

"That was the funny thing about it," said Tampa pastor Lowery, who was at the meeting. "What happened at the hotel was not actually discussed. I couldn't make heads or tails of that."

The efforts to placate the PNBC, which had made no demands more specific than "restitution and reconciliation," continued well after the Baptists left Tampa.

Bill Marriott, chairman and chief executive officer of Marriott International, wrote to Daniels on Aug. 16. "We sincerely regret this unfortunate situation," Marriott wrote. "You, of course, will not receive an invoice for the meal function."

Apparently the PNBC felt that was more reconciliation than restitution, because two weeks later it hired Johnnie Cochran. A group with no reputation for racial litigation had aligned itself with the man who is synonymous with it.

"There may be an early settlement," Daniels predicted.

* * *

There has been no settlement.

There has been no lawsuit to settle.

Nor has there been any resolution.

"I suspect it is one of those potentially legal matters," says Roger Conner, Marriott's corporate spokesman. "It's a legal matter in the sense that our lawyers and their lawyers are in discussion, and those discussions continue."

What exactly are they discussing?

Cochran won't say. He has not responded to six calls over a month.

"We're just waiting to be directed by them as far as what's happening at this time," says Daniels. "The attorneys are meeting, I do know that."

But just because the dispute has been sucked into a lawyers' black hole doesn't mean nothing has happened in eight months.

The waiters came back to work.

"These kids are really good kids, good waiters, with good records," said Stewart, the Waterside's marketing director.

Detective Walker had to close his investigation after Jones refused to talk. Reached by phone at his home in Virginia, Jones politely referred Walker to the PNBC's attorney, Patricia Barnes, the woman who wouldn't give her name in Tampa. Barnes didn't talk the second time either. When contacted for this story, she referred all questions to Cochran.

Jones has been contacted repeatedly, by phone and by mail, to comment for this story. His wife always takes the reporter's phone number, but Jones never calls.

The Marriott hired a Tampa law firm to do a separate inquiry, the results of which it would not make public except to say they backed the waiters' version.

"In the end," said Stewart, "there was no reason to believe (the waiters) would have done it."

photo
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
This small vial holds all that’s left of the punch. It’s kept in a refrigerator at Tampa Police headquarters.

* * *

For Daniels and the rest of the PNBC leadership there was never any reason to believe a white waiter wouldn't have done it.

"I have no doubt something happened," Daniels said. "Just as I have no doubt what happened to the World Trade Center."

Daniels avoids specifics when addressing the subject. He speaks of the "evil act" and the "egregious act." Sometimes it is simply "the Tampa incident."

Asked what he believes happened, Daniels answers, "Exactly what the eyewitness said happened."

He doesn't need to speak in specifics. Among members of the PNBC, even those who were not at the Tampa event, there is a striking similarity in their versions of the incident.

Just how little of an overstatement that is becomes clear in late March at a regional meeting of the PNBC. Several hundred members of the PNBC's Eastern Region gathered at the Holiday Inn in downtown Charleston, W.Va. (They shunned the larger Marriott down the street.)

In between the ladies' luncheon and hat show and seminars on "Reversing the Jail Trail" it was possible to ask people what they think happened in Tampa.

Most people wouldn't speak about it, respecting a gag order that Daniels has not lifted since he imposed it Aug. 8. They will smile, offer a handshake and an earnest "Bless you" without ever breaking stride. They will talk at length about missionary work in Africa or the difficulty ministering in the city when the congregation is moving to the suburbs. But raise the subject of the punch bowl, and the conversation draws to a sudden end.

"The convention will seek to do what's best in that matter and to which I wouldn't speak," said Dr. Edwon D. Brown, the minister of the Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

But some would.

"It was horrific. Basically it was rumored someone spit in the punch and that we tried to get the manager from the Marriott who wasn't there at the time," said the Rev. A.L. Lambert Jr., 41. The manager "wouldn't respond. He just brushed it off like some fly."

Wallace Charles Smith, minister of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., offered a similar version.

"Someone was observed spitting in the punch," he said.

Not reaching for a ladle, not drinking from a ladle and pouring back into the bowl. Spitting into the punch.

To the members of the PNBC, the allegations of what happened to the punch never needed investigating. They did not need proof, the kind that the police might have been able to supply. They accept it as true because things like it have happened before.

"We didn't need the Rodney King tape to convince us of what we already knew was going on," Smith said. "We look for opportunities to work with other races, other faiths, but we don't need to convince others to know injustices are going on."

Still, the PNBC has not shied from using its clout to affect political change. Look at how it handled the volatile situation in Cincinnati.

Black residents of Cincinnati rioted after the April 2001 shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. The Department of Justice has investigated the police department. Impatient with the pace of change, local black organizations have called for conventions and entertainers to boycott the city.

At first, the PNBC, which was scheduled to hold its annual meeting in Cincinnati this August, tried to use its position as the city's largest convention to compel meetings between the mayor and local black groups. In mid-March, Daniels announced his group had decided to cancel, frustrated at the mayor's refusal to comply with its demands.

Daniels said he sees no similarity between the PNBC's efforts in Cincinnati and Tampa.

"There's no comparison. Two different cities. Two different events," Daniels said, before adding, "We don't apologize for our principles. We turn our heads too often to the inequities that occur in our cities."

But what has the PNBC accomplished by continuing to press its case on the Tampa incident with the same determination it demonstrated in Cincinnati? The answer is not a great deal, if bookings at the Marriott are any measure.

In January, the Marriott persuaded a local African-American group, the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, to hold its Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at the hotel. Last week, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's oldest black sorority, held a four-day meeting at the hotel. They even had a punch reception. It went off without a hitch.

The punch bowl incident -- and its lingering lack of resolution -- may embody the state of modern race relations not because of the allegations made at the time, but because of what hasn't been said in the months afterward.

"There's something there that has not been dealt with. There should be some forward movement, but so many times we don't deal with the real issue there," Rev. Lowery, 88, said. "We need to trust each other more. Black people historically don't trust white people.

"Every time something like this happens, it rekindles that feeling, 'See, I told you you can't trust those white folks,' " he said. "I wish somehow we could get together."

Well, the only people meeting, it seems, are the lawyers.

* * *

Istvan Kovacs is not too keen to talk about race either.

With corporate attorneys telling him not to talk (and his own instinct for self-preservation confirming that), he knows now there is no value in belaboring an incident he wants to put behind him.

"This is not my goal to tell people what to do about these things," Kovacs said. "My future is not here."

In August, Kovacs' internship will end at the Marriott. He will return to Hungary with a behind-the-scenes view of the hotel industry and an equally valuable lesson in U.S. racial politics.

"It's all around money," he said.

This newfound cynicism replaces the naivete he arrived with.

"When I come here," Kovacs said, "I was thought this problem between black and white was taken care of."

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