The former head of Spokane's NAACP chapter faces more heat about her integrity and racial identity as it is revealed that she once sued Howard University claiming racial discrimination because she is white.
Rachel Dolezal, who resigned on Monday as president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter amid a furor over her racial identity, once sued Howard University claiming racial discrimination because she is white.
The lawsuit was posted online by The Smoking Gun on a day that also brought new details about Dolezal’s family life.
In the 2002 suit, Dolezal said she was denied financial aid, a teaching assistantship for a semester and a job at Howard after getting a graduate degree in fine art. She also claimed that Howard had removed some of her artwork from a student exhibition because the university favored African-American students over her.
Both a trial and an appeals court ruled in favor of Howard, finding no proof of discrimination. Rachel Mann, a spokeswoman for the university, said in a statement Monday that “Howard University considers this matter closed and has no further comment.” Dolezal could not be reached for comment.
But Rachel’s father, Lawrence Dolezal, referred to the legal battle in a phone call from his home in Troy, Mont. “She received reverse discrimination quite heavily when she was at Howard,” he said, adding that she got a lawyer to fight it. “That’s the kind of determination and grit Rachel has.”
Tuesday morning on NBC’s “Today” Show, Dolezal said that she started identifying as black around the age of 5, when she drew self-portraits with a brown crayon, and “takes exception” to the contention that she tried to deceive people. She also said some of the discussion about her has been “viciously inhumane.”
Lawrence Dolezal and his wife, Ruthanne Dolezal, ignited a firestorm last week when they said their daughter had been posing as black for years. The ensuing controversy led Dolezal, 37, to post a statement on the NAACP’s Facebook page Monday.
“In the eye of this current storm, I can see that a separation of family and organizational outcomes is in the best interest of the NAACP,” wrote Dolezal, a longtime figure in Spokane’s civil- rights community who was elected to the NAACP post six months ago. “Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights.”
She added that she has “waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions — absent the full story.” But she did not attempt to tell the full story herself.
Dolezal also is no longer employed at Eastern Washington University, where she had taught Africana Studies, the university confirmed Monday afternoon. She had taught on a quarter-by-quarter basis since 2010. Her contract expired Friday, the last day of the spring quarter.
It’s unclear whether her contract will be renewed. Her instructor page has been removed from the Africana Studies Page department website.
“All I can tell you is that she does not have a contract,” EWU spokesman Dave Meany said.
Meanwhile, Dolezal’s father continued to express puzzlement by the estrangement with his daughter — and with two of his four adopted children, one of whom now lives with Dolezal. Previous news reports have suggested that the estrangement has to do with allegations of abuse within the family, although it has remained unclear who was making the allegations and who was supposed to have been abused.
Lawrence Dolezal insisted he doesn’t know, either. In fact, he said, he only learned about the allegations from media reports on the Dolezal controversy over the past week.
The Denver Post reported Monday that Dolezal’s biological brother is facing sex- assault charges allegedly involving a child in 2000 or 2001 in Colorado, where his family lived at one time. The story does not say who the alleged victim may be.
Lawrence Dolezal said he and his wife had turned to adoption because of their anti-abortion beliefs, feeling the need to take in unwanted children. They ended up adopting four black children, three from the U.S. and one from Haiti.
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The adoptions had a profound effect on Dolezal, who was still living at home at the time, according to her father. “She fell in love with the people,” Lawrence Dolezal said, referring to African Americans.
A few years later, she went to Belhaven College (now Belhaven University), a Christian school in Mississippi, and participated in a ministry devoted to racial reconciliation. Her art work focused more and more on black people, according to her father, and she went on to Howard, an historically African American university, for graduate school. She won prizes for her art there, he said, but she faced resentment because of her race.
In recent years, she claimed to face more racial hostility, but she no longer identified herself as white. On an application to Spokane’s police oversight board, to which she was appointed, she said her ethnic origins included white, black and American Indian.
City officials are now investigating whether she lied in that application.
Called a role model
In March, after Dolezal reported receiving hate mail, Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan issued a statement that denounced the alleged threats and expressed support for Dolezal and her work at the university.
“A faculty member in EWU’s Africana Studies program, Ms. Dolezal has long been a courageous voice on issues of human rights and social justice,” Cullinan said in the March 9 statement. “She carries those messages into the classroom, where she is both a valued educator and an inspiring role model for EWU students.”
Although pictures show her as a child with fair skin and straight blond hair, she now bears a light brown complexion and thick, dark curls. As recently as Friday, she insisted she was black. Yet, she has sidestepped the issue when probed further, saying “that question is not as easy as it seems. There’s a lot of complexities.”
Late last week, the national NAACP stood by her, saying “one’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership.”
But Dolezal came under increasing pressure from local chapter members to resign.
Kitara Johnson, an NAACP member in Spokane who has been calling on Dolezal to step down, welcomed the resignation as “the best thing that can happen right now.”
Johnson said that the most important thing is to focus on the work of the NAACP, and that she hopes Dolezal remains a member of the organization.
“She knows her stuff,” Johnson said.
Cornell William Brooks, national president of the NAACP, declined to comment on the resignation.
Gerald Hankerson, the Seattle-based president of the organization’s conference of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, acknowledged the storm of debate over racial identity that Dolezal has provoked. “It’s a great debate to have,” he said. But he said it was not one that should be under the auspices of the NAACP.
“In talking about the ethnicity of one person, we’re losing sight of the issues we fight,” Hankderson said.
In resigning, Dolezal boasted that under her leadership the NAACP chapter acquired an office, increased membership, improved finances and made other improvements. She said the conversation had “unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.”
Dolezal’s parents also appeared on the “Today” show Monday and said they hoped to reconcile with their daughter.
“We hope that Rachel will get the help that she needs to deal with her identity issues. Of course, we love her,” her mother said.