A new downtown Charleston nightclub came under fire this week for allegedly deploying methods that resemble the historic practices of white-only social clubs across the South that sought to exclude patrons of color.
Deco Nightclub, which has received nearly 200 one-star online ratings as of Friday afternoon, most of which accuse the business of racism, responded this week with two Facebook posts touting the diversity of its staff and assuring customers that the owners clarified all company policies with its employees.
"We've immediately discontinued any type of membership program. All current VIP cards, etc., will no longer be accepted or required as a means of entry for anyone, anytime," the owners of Deco Club posted on Facebook. "We have cut ties with employees who are not aligned with our company's core values of collaboration, communication, and inclusion; and will continue to seek out new employees to better serve you."
While Deco has received more than 100 5-star ratings in recent months, most of the online reviews on Facebook and Google are negative. Even so, the NAACP and the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce said they have not received any formal complaints about the business.
Deco replaced Cure Nightclub, formerly Pantheon, on Ann Street in April. Eater Charleston reported last year that the space had been acquired by Tyler Wicker of the Charlotte-based Bottle Cap Group.
"We look forward to continuing the dialogue in real time through our social channels and on our website," Deco Club posted online. "As always, we encourage your feedback on how we can continue to improve your experience here at Deco."
Attorney David Aylor representing the owners of the club, sent a statement late Friday.
"At times, we have had to limit the number of people we can legally allow in the club due to various regulations including occupancy requirements by the fire marshal. It appears we have had employees allow their friends to enter the club despite not adhering to our dress codes. Since we have received some complaints, our managers have had to terminate some employees who did not follow our policies or who were not respectful to our customers."
The statement also said "Like many small businesses, we will continue to train our staff on the importance of listening to our customers so we can provide a better experience to our guests."
The accusations raised by online commenters are similar to claims made against longstanding white-only clubs across the country, many of which came into existence during the Jim Crow era and continued to exclude black members for decades after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Such clubs often required membership cards or keys to gain access to the venue.
While most businesses, including hotels and restaurants, are forbidden from discriminating based on race, private clubs are not held to the same rules.
Deco Club's response on Facebook was prompted by hundreds of negative online reviews that suggest bouncers at the club discriminated against would-be patrons, citing membership cards and dress code policies.
The Deco Charleston website gives no indication guests need a membership to get in. It does offer "exclusive VIP tables with bottle service" available to reserve.
Coastal Carolina University student Kaitland Paige, who is black, said she was told she couldn't enter the club on July 6 because she did not have a membership card.
But she watched white women enter the club with only driver's licenses.
Jarvis Be, who works at Greenville Health System and identifies as Filipino, told The Post and Courier he was also turned away on July 6 because he lacked a membership. He returned the following night and explained to the bouncer there was no link on the club's website to sign up for one.
He asked to speak to a manager. The bouncer told him no one was available.
Ryan Medeiros, a white Charleston resident, said he was not asked for a membership card when he entered the club right after it first opened on April 20.
Membership cards weren't the only obstacle some patrons faced. Both Paige and Be told The Post and Courier that white customers were held to a different dress code standard than black men and women.
"(The bouncer) was letting in people who had on flip-flops and shorts, so the fact they're saying it's a dress code issue, that's a baldfaced lie, because I called the club earlier that day to confirm the dress code," Paige told The Post and Courier.
The club has a dress code clearly listed on its website:
"NO jerseys, NO baseball caps, NO athletic wear, NO flip-flops, NO graphic tees, No plain white tees, NO camouflage, NO doo rags, NO sleeveless attire (men only)."
Such dress codes are typical at local nightclubs, from Mynt on Calhoun Street to Republic Garden & Lounge on King Street.
Be said he, too, watched white customers with dress code violations enter the club.
"It wasn’t about who’s best dressed," he said. "Because white people with flip-flops and tattered jeans were getting in, and black people with Sunday dress wear weren’t."
More than 100 online commenters have claimed that they or someone they saw was turned away at the door while adhering to the club's dress code rules.
Dot Scott, Charleston branch president of the NAACP, said she has not heard of any complaints about discrimination in Charleston nightclubs in years.
"I think a lot of those complaints don't come to us," she said, "but we absolutely will take them."