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Ex-lawmaker claims he was fired over code Conaway accused photo chain of using secret racial signal


A former Maryland legislator says a national chain of photo studios fired him after he caught the company using a secret racial code to alert employees when they were scheduled to work at black churches.

Frank M. Conaway Sr., a former West Baltimore delegate, said Olan Mills, a chain of portrait studios based in Chattanooga, Tenn., fired him and his son, Frank M. Conaway Jr., as salesmen last month in retaliation for blowing the whistle on the racial code.

He said the company's racial codes allowed it to steer the Conaways to black churches and away from more lucrative white parish accounts.

Mr. Conaway, who is black, contends that Olan Mills kept using racial coding even after agreeing not to in February, when it settled a complaint he filed with the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

"I think this happens all the time," Mr. Conaway said. "Most of the time people feel so much in need of a job that they fail to complain. Every now and then there's someone with enough guts to stand up and say, 'I'm not going to take it.' "

Terry Blunt, Olan Mills' director of human resources, said the racial code was "really a non-issue." Olan Mills does a big business in photographic church directories, and it was Mr. Conaway's job to sell church members extra prints of portraits taken for the directories.

The racial code was "simply a sales tool so that employees can take in the proper portrait samples for the community we're serving as customers," he said.

Mr. Blunt would not comment on Mr. Conaway's dismissal, saying, "That's all between an ex-employee, the Maryland Human Relations Commission and Olan Mills."

Mr. Conaway's spat with Olan Mills is the latest in a quarter-century of controversies for the former legislator. He often claimed racial discrimination against others or himself.

The former insurance executive supported strict gun control in the early 1970s, sponsored legislation to make doctors post their fees in waiting rooms, campaigned to make peppermint lemonade the state drink, and once urged blacks to boycott the Baltimore Colts after the team had traded star running back Lydell Mitchell.

Mr. Conaway's political downfall came in 1982 when the state Insurance Division charged him and his insurance partners with mishandling more than $200,000 in clients' premiums. The administrative charges were dropped after Mr. Conaway turned in his insurance broker's licenses. Later that year, he was voted out of the legislature and filed for bankruptcy.

A political comeback failed in 1987 when he ran unsuccessfully for the Baltimore City Council. Mr. Conaway's wife, Mary, is the city's register of wills.

Mr. Conaway, 59, said he began work in January 1991 with Olan Mills, a privately held chain with an estimated $720 million in revenues last year. He was hired as a "portrait consultant" in the company's church division.

Mr. Conaway and his 29-year-old son, who joined his father in the business, were successful salesmen, according to weekly Olan Mills sales records they kept. Frank Conaway Sr. says he typically took $10,000 to $30,000 in photo orders per congregation. After a few months on the job, Mr. Conaway said, he noticed that work orders directing Olan Mills photographers xTC and salespeople to black churches always bore the notation "Joyce Green." He said the code was never explained to him.

Mr. Blunt said "Joyce Green" was apparently the name of a model who posed years ago for sample portraits used in black churches.

At a regional staff meeting in the spring of 1991, Mr. Conaway mentioned that he and his son -- apparently the only black salespeople in the mid-Atlantic area -- were routinely being sent to "Joyce Green" churches. Other employees laughed knowingly, he said.

"From our point of view, it held us up to ridicule and humiliation," Mr. Conaway said.

Later, he said, a supervisor told him the "Joyce Green" code was used to let employees know they were going into a bad neighborhood -- a notion that Mr. Conaway said he found offensive. But Mr. Blunt said the code was only a sales tool that should have been explained to the Conaways.

In a June 1991 letter to a supervisor, Mr. Conaway complained that he was being passed over for promotion and mentioned the "Joyce Green" code, calling it "entirely unnecessary to make reference to the ethnic composition of a church."

Olan Mills did not respond to the charge of racial coding, Mr. Conaway said. It also did not promote him. In October 1991, he filed a race-and-age-discrimination complaint with the state Human Relations Commission, in which he noted the racial code.

Mr. Conaway said he was also upset that he and his son were frequently sent to black churches -- while white colleagues worked wealthier white parishes.

The photo studio chain settled the complaint in February. Olan Mills denied violating any law, but agreed not to use "covert coding to designate the racial status of potential customers," according to a copy of the settlement. It also agreed to promote Mr. Conaway.

Five days later, Olan Mills sent a memo to all portrait consultants giving a new series of codes to cover five racial or ethnic groups -- "African-American, White, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian" -- so that salespeople could "prepare the appropriate samples and materials.

"This is the only authorized ethnic indicator and is to be used only to assist in providing better customer service for all groups," the memo said.

On March 13, Mr. Conaway filed a new complaint against Olan Mills, accusing the company of retaliation. He said he had not been promoted, as agreed in February, and had been forced to make long trips to faraway jobs.

After he filed the complaint, Mr. Conaway said, he was offered a promotion if he would drop the retaliation charge. He said he refused.

Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the Maryland Human Relations Commission, said she could not comment on specific cases.

In general, she said, racial coding has not been a common complaint. But she said its use could create a "hostile atmosphere" for black employees.

Mr. Conaway said the racial coding continued. In April, six weeks after the settlement, the Conaways received a work schedule that included a stop at a church in Southeast Washington.

Beneath the address was the notation "Joyce Green."

Mr. Blunt said the code "should not have been used in April."

The Conaways were fired April 27. Mr. Blunt would not say why they were dismissed. Frank Conaway Sr. claimed that the firings were in retaliation for "giving them so much blues about the Joyce Green thing."

Frank Conaway Jr., who has three small children, said he was "kind of devastated" to lose his job. He has filed a discrimination complaint against Olan Mills.

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