Tallman Trask III is an executive vice president at Duke University. In that capacity, he serves as the school’s “principal administrative and fiscal officer.” On Aug, 30, 2014, a school parking attendant says that Trask hit her with his Porsche and then, as he was driving away, called her a “dumb, dumb, stupid nigger.”
The accusation was revealed today by The Chronicle, Duke’s student paper. According to victim Shelvia Underwood, Trask was attempting to access a closed road on the night of a football game against Elon University when he was blocked by Underwood, who is a contract employee of McLaurin Parking and Transportation. Underwood says that before she could explain to Trask why she had stopped him, he hit her with his car, rolling her up onto the hood before she slammed back onto the ground. Via The Chronicle:
After the game had already started, Underwood said Trask approached in his silver Porsche while she was speaking with a pedestrian. Underwood said that in order to help the pedestrian, she stopped Trask. She added that she did not realize who Trask was because she was a contract employee.
As Underwood started to turn around to address Trask, he hit her with his car, she said.
“As I turn back around, I take a step and this car has hit me. My hands are on the hood, then I hit the ground,” Underwood said.
Underwood got off the ground, then said she shouted at Trask, “Really sir, really? You’re in that much of a hurry that you hit me with your car?”
Underwood said she told Trask that the road was closed unless he had a parking pass. Rather than initially showing Underwood a pass, Trask responded by banging on the steering wheel and saying, “This road is not closed” twice, Underwood said. Underwood explained that Trask then held up two parking passes—which she said was “all he needed in the first place” to be allowed to go through.
As Trask drove off, Underwood said he called her a “dumb, dumb stupid n*****.
That Trask struck Underwood with his vehicle is not in question. There were several witnesses—including a co-worker of Underwood’s—who saw it happen. Trask also had an underling deliver a handwritten, signed apology to Underwood at a subsequent football game three weeks later. It read:
Dear Ms. Underwood,
I very much regret the incident before the Elon football game. I should have been more patient and I apologize.
But when asked about the incident by The Chronicle, Trask first denied ever having hit Underwood. It was only “after he was presented with a picture of his written apology note via email” that Trask admitted to his role in the incident.
That initial lie perhaps takes on even greater importance given that Trask maintains that he never said the racial slur. None of the witnesses interviewed by The Chronicle directly overheard Trask saying the n-word, but several did say that Underwood reported the use of the slur in the moments immediately after she was hit. Said one:
After Underwood stopped Trask, the co-worker was still busy with other traffic and could not exactly hear the exchange between the pair, the co-worker explained. The co-worker did see what happened as Trask drove away from the scene.
“She was hopping on one foot back out of the way of the front of the vehicle. And then it took off—there was no, ‘Sorry ma’am,’ or anything like that. As soon as she cleared the front of the vehicle, he was gone,” the co-worker said.
The co-worker also said that after Trask left the scene, Underwood asked, “Did you hear what he called me?” The co-worker added that there were no parking passes visible on Trask’s car.
A parking supervisor employed by the school also told The Chronicle that Underwood immediately made the allegation of racial abuse:
Marian Brown, former lead transit supervisor for PTS and a PTS employee for 23 years, said on the day of the Elon game she was in the command post, where she could hear reports from all employees in the field. She noted that Sam Veraldi, former director of PTS, was also present in the command post when Underwood reported that Trask hit her on the radio.
“I turned up the mic, and said ‘Um, 10-9, could you repeat that message?’ [Underwood] said it again. When she repeated it, I turned the mic up and was watching everyone go, ‘What!’ Everyone started making calls,” Brown said.
Despite medical records showing that Underwood suffered a contusion and possible fractured elbow, she was pressured by her boss—whose company has won the Duke football parking contract for six consecutive seasons—to not file a police report regarding the incident:
Later that day, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, Underwood said she received a call from Steve McLaurin, the owner of McLaurin Parking and Transportation.
“When I see Steve is calling, I know something is up—I’ve worked for McLaurin’s for seven years and had never received a call from him,” Underwood said.
McLaurin told Underwood that because she was not seriously injured and Duke was inquiring about how he was going to handle the situation, “‘a sincere apology [from Trask] should cover it,’” Underwood said. Explaining that she was fearful of losing her job if she filed a lawsuit, Underwood said she told McLaurin that if she received a sincere apology, she would not proceed further.
A report was filed with campus police, but according to The Chronicle it omits Trask’s name as well as any details about the incident, stating only that Underwood came to an officer about “concerned behavior.” A school investigation cleared Trask of the slur accusation.
It’s worth noting that as executive president at Duke, Trask is responsible not just for things like “budget, financial affairs, procurement [and] debt” but also “safety and security, and auxiliary services” including specifically “parking and transportation.” Trask had immediate, if not total, influence over Underwood’s employer’s contract. He also conceivably would have been able to exert influence over Underwood’s employment within the company.
It does not appear as if Underwood’s job was ever jeopardized—and The Chronicle does not say whether she is still employed with McLaurin Parking and Transportation—but the incident had managed to stay under wraps until now. Underwood’s attorney declined to speak to The Chronicle—it appears the paper uncovered the allegations during a larger investigation into Duke’s Parking and Transportation Services Department—but the paper does report that she has “been working to take legal action against Trask.”