Black restaurant worker beaten, enslaved for years, Charleston lawyers say

Bobby Paul Edwards, 50

A pair of Charleston attorneys on Monday filed a federal lawsuit against an Horry County restaurant, accusing its white operators of beating a black employee and using racial slurs over several years of “slavery,” a statement said.

The civil suit in U.S. District Court lists 14 accusations against J&J Cafeteria in Conway, owner Ernest J. Edwards and manager Bobby Paul Edwards, who are brothers. It also names the restaurant’s registered corporation, Half Moon Foods Inc.

It covers a range of conduct, such as false imprisonment, discrimination and unfair labor practices, alleged to have occurred toward the end of Christopher Smith’s 23 years of working at the Conway restaurant.

Smith, who the attorneys described as mentally handicapped, was rescued last year after state social workers fielded a tip from someone concerned about his safety. Bobby Edwards, 50, of Lakeside Drive in Conway was arrested Nov. 19, 2014, on a charge of second-degree assault and battery. That criminal case was still pending Monday.

In the statement Monday, lawyers Mullins McLeod and David Aylor called Smith’s ordeal troubling and outrageous.

“This lawsuit cannot change the past,” Aylor added, “but hopefully it will bring about positive change in the future.”

A telephone message left Monday for the restaurant’s owner was not immediately returned.

Reviews of the business on Yelp.com included a mix of praise for its Southern fare and complaints about experiences with its staff members.

Smith worked from an early age at the restaurant and later lived in a nearby cockroach-infested apartment owned by the business, his attorneys said. They called the living conditions “subhuman.”

The physical and emotional abuse lasted from 2010 until his rescue on Oct. 10, 2014, the attorneys said. It started when Bobby Edwards started managing the place and continued after complaints to Ernest Edwards, they said.

Smith was forced to work 18-hour shifts six days a week and an 11-hour stint on Sundays, they said, and he wasn’t paid for much of it or allowed breaks. The attorneys estimated that Smith was paid about $2,842 yearly.

He was hit with a frying pan, burned with grease-covered tongs, and beaten with butcher knives, belt buckles and fists “while being called the N-word repeatedly,” the attorneys said. The assaults took place in places like a walk-in freezer as he screamed for his life, they said.

He was targeted, they said, because he is black.

After responding with Conway police to the tip, S.C. Department of Social Services representatives found scars on his back.

Smith later said, according to the suit, that he never came forward because he thought the attempt would result in more harm or his death.

Reach Andrew Knapp at (843) 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.