The Crusader Newspaper Group

Union leader honored by Pullman Museum hid race lawsuit

Mexican union leader kept discrimination lawsuit secret while being honored by A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum

On the home page of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum’s website is a picture of Leo Esparza towering over the museum’s founder, Dr. Lyn Hughes, at a black-tie gala. Reverend Jesse Jackson was there. A tall Mexican man sporting a bushy mustache, Esparza mingled with Blacks at the Museum’s elegant fundraiser. Hughes and Museum officials were impressed with Esparza and honored him with their “Change Agent” award. 

They believed Esparza’s story depicting him as a leader who pushed for more Black representation in Chicago’s lily-white labor unions. As someone who didn’t look like Blacks, Esparza convinced Hughes and her colleagues he was worthy of the honor.

But as the music played and the champagne flowed, no one at the Museum—not even Hughes—knew about Esparza’s past as president of Local 1, a construction workers’ union located on Chicago’s North Side. 

While guests wined, dined and danced the night away, Esparza and his attorneys fought to keep an explosive discrimination lawsuit from trial. It’s a lawsuit that threatens to expose Esparza as a fraud and a Mexican union leader who sent racist text messages that fueled a hostile environment for Bobby Peak, a Black man who spent two years as Local 1’s only Black business agent.

As his lawsuit floated in federal court, Esparza kept the lawsuit under wraps while he was a candidate for the A. Philip Randolph “Change Agent Award.” He was eventually awarded the honor, but questions remain whether he truly earned it. 

By the time Hughes became aware of the lawsuit, it was too late. Her Museum, a Black institution whose purpose and mission is to educate and promote Blacks in unions, had honored a Mexican man accused of doing just the opposite. “This is so unsettling,” Hughes told the Crusader.

Now aware of the lawsuit against Esparza, Hughes and Museum officials are considering whether to strip him of the honor by rescinding the award. Meanwhile, Esparza and his powerful lawyers remain in intense negotiations for a second week with Peak, as the pressure builds for Esparza and Local 1 to control the union’s image by keeping the lawsuit from snowballing in the media.

The fundraiser aimed to generate funds that will support the Museum’s expansion project, which will include the creation of Randolph’s Way, the first Black Labor Tourism District in America. In addition to photos of Esparza receiving the award at the fundraiser, the Crusader confirmed this with Hughes, who was shocked and knew nothing about the federal lawsuit against Esparza until the Crusader brought it to her attention. 

That lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern District Illinois in Chicago on March 24, 2020. Esparza was named a defendant, along with Local 1, where the plaintiff was allegedly subjected to a racially hostile work environment that included text messages from Esparza and other colleagues. After two years, Peak was fired from Local 1 when the company ran a background check and discovered a conviction for cocaine possession in 2009.

Peak’s termination letter said he was fired because he didn’t disclose his criminal conviction when he was interviewing for the job. But Peak said he did, and a ruling from the Illinois Human Rights Commission not only agreed with him, but said Peak was unlawfully terminated and as a result of the racist work environment, “suffered embarrassment, insult and emotional injury, loss of employment wages, benefits and seniority, damage to his personal and professional reputation, attorney’s fees and costs.”

Local 1’s lawyers tried numerous times to dismiss the lawsuit in federal court. The union’s lawyers are trying to settle the complaint out of court, but as negotiation talks intensified, Peak’s supporters held several protests in the Loop, while holding giant placards with Esparza’s and his colleagues’ racist text messages on them. 

Esparza was Peak’s supervisor at Local 1. In the lawsuit, Peak said Esparza not only engaged in racist behavior toward him, but he allowed others to do the same. The lawsuit included photos of black figurines of musicians that resembled black-faced minstrels who performed during Jim Crow. Peak alleged that Esparza gave them to him at a holiday party. There’s also a photo of figurines that include a pimp with a thick gold chain around his neck and a black-faced dog. 

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In the lawsuit, Esparza said he “gifted” Peak the figurines because Peak expressed an interest in them. But Peak’s lawyer argued there are no text messages or other evidence that indicated Peak’s interest in the objects. He also argued Esparza did not gift white employees with similar items.

In the lawsuit, Peak said he was forced to serve as Local 1’s “water boy” by going out to purchase water for staff meetings. The lawsuit also said Peak was forced to work in predominately white Villa Park, where he said a resident called the police on him and another called him a “Black MF.”

The most damning part of Peak’s lawsuit included numerous racist text messages and photos that were attached with the complaint. Some were so raunchy the Crusader is unable to print them for this story. While many contained racial stereotypes of Blacks, other text messages Peak received were about gays and lesbians (Peak’s brother was gay and died of AIDS).

Screenshots of the text messages show at least 11 of them came from Esparza. He sent one text that includes a photo of a Black woman whose breasts can be seen through a light transparent blouse. Sent by Esparza, it reads: “Hey Bobby no Sign up no Pu—y,” 

Hey Bobby Woman in thin blouse

In another text sent by Esparza, there’s a photo of a Black man that accompanies a story about a bank robber captured on surveillance camera. The text includes a message from Esparza: “Dude, you got some explaining to do. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.” 

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Esparza also sent a text message of a video that shows a cartoon image of a giant red penis covering the map of the United States while the weatherman is giving the forecast. When one presses the play button, the weatherman appears to be rubbing the penis up and down.

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When Peter Fosco, a colleague at Local 1, sent a photo of someone’s testicles, Esparza in the group text asks, “Is that the 2017 eclipse???” 

Esparza also sent out a photo of a very dark-skinned Black man in an orange prison suit. The man is not Peak, but the message reads, “NEW LOCAL, ONE BA, BOBBY PEAK.” 

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When the Crusader emailed Hughes the story and the text messages, she was shocked. She said she was unaware of the lawsuit. She also said Esparza never told her about it. 

“I’m blown away by what you just shared,” Hughes said. “I can’t say enough of how unsettling this is.”

Hughes said three people recommended that the Museum give its “Change Agent Award” to Esparza, but Hughes said she made the final decision.

Hughes declined to disclose the names of the three individuals who recommended Esparza. 

“I’d rather not say at this time. But I stand on my own conviction based on the information I was given [about Esparza].”

Before she gave the final approval to give the award to Esparza, Hughes said she was told Esparza was recommended because of his “advocacy and integrity in pushing for Black representation in labor unions.” 

The Crusader later texted Hughes asking whether Esparza paid for the award or paid a fee for the honor. She did not respond by press time Wednesday, May 8, for the Crusader’s print edition. 

There are also questions as to what evidence Esparza produced to prove his advocacy for Blacks being represented in union organizations. 

There’s speculation that Esparza pursued the award to protect his image in light of his racist text messages in Peak’s lawsuit. Peak’s lawyer in the complaint said Esparza felt he did nothing wrong, despite Peak complaining to him that the text messages were offensive. Peak in the lawsuit said Esparza told him “to suck it up.”

As for the “Change Agent Award,” Hughes said she will talk with the Museum’s Board members about rescinding the honor they gave to Esparza. 

“I cannot speak for everyone,” she said. “But I cannot say enough how unsettling this is. We had no idea about this man’s background.”

To read the first story “Black figurines of pimps, racists texts, made hostile workplace for ‘unlawfully’ fired employee, state commission rules” click here

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