RALEIGH -- A 21-year-old black student bound for Harvard University has described being ejected from a downtown sports bar because of his race, triggering far-reaching online condemnation and plans for a weekend protest.
Jonathan Wall of Raleigh offered his account of a night at Downtown Sports Bar and Grill to a friend and local blogger, who posted the story Monday and immediately drew nearly 200 responses, many of them offering similar stories of racial discrimination on the Glenwood South strip.
By Wednesday, a Facebook page created on Wall’s behalf had drawn more than 4,300 members criticizing the incident from as far away as New York and Miami. And more than 500 people flooded the sports bar’s own page, most of them expressing outrage.
“More than anything,” Wall said in an interview, “I’m surprised that something like this is happening in a tolerant, diverse city like Raleigh. I’m not trying to cause trouble. ... But I can’t just sit back.”
Management at the bar referred questions to its Raleigh lawyer, William Potter, who denied that any racial discrimination, assault or violation of state ABC laws occurred at the bar – in Wall’s case or at any time.
“I can acknowledge that he was escorted out, but the final reason was he was not a member or a guest,” Potter said. “It would be foolish for this business to say ‘We’re not going to serve black people.’ That didn’t happen.”
Potter said he has encouraged staff not to participate in the “email barrage.” In the past few days, photographs and other personal information about staff members have been posted online, inviting criticism.
Meanwhile, a Raleigh stay-at-home mother has organized a protest for Saturday night, saying that her husband, also black, was denied entry to the same bar in recent months. Someone in his group was wearing the wrong type of shoes, he was told, though white patrons dressed the same way were admitted, said Forrestine Parker-Fenner, 25.
Downtown Sports Bar sits at the south end of Glenwood Avenue amid a string of nightclubs, restaurants and cafes. Since the area transformed from a nearly abandoned set of blocks in the late 1990s, it has drawn reviews from the likes of The New York Times. Free buses run between it and the Raleigh Convention Center.
Potter emphasized that the business is a private club, requiring membership or status as a bona fide guest. A sign explaining this was posted at the entrance Wednesday afternoon, and Potter said the club turns away patrons with problem IDs – including some of the people now posting on Facebook.
At the door Wednesday, no one requested a reporter’s membership credentials. On various social media sites, commenters sympathizing with Wall describe membership being asked of some black patrons but not whites.
The social media outcry began Monday, when Wall’s account appeared on a blog created by Philip Christman, a writing coach who has taught Wall for two summers at the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program at UNC. Wall, a graduate of Knightdale High School and Morehouse College in Atlanta, plans to attend graduate school at Harvard this fall, seeking a degree in education policy and management. “I call him ‘Mr. President,’ ” Christman wrote in his blog post, “because he’s one of the most intimidatingly accomplished and polished undergrads I’ve ever met.”
In the post, Wall described going to the bar at about 12:30 Sunday morning with two friends and being told by a bouncer that they needed a membership for entry. They were confused, he said, because they didn’t consider the place a private club and saw that white patrons ahead in line apparently had not needed memberships. But when a police officer came near, Wall wrote, the bouncer told them “never mind” about the membership.
After 10 minutes inside, Wall was alone while one friend went to the bathroom and another went upstairs. A man he thought was a bartender soon told him, “Either buy a drink or leave now,” Wall said. Wall explained that he was waiting for his friend to come out of the bathroom. He noticed many white patrons without drinks, he said, but he planned to leave when the friend returned. The bartender, he said, twisted his left arm behind his head and pushed him out of the bar.
“The common denominator, again, was that I was the only black person around,” Wall wrote. “I accepted that he was on an ego-trip, and let him guide me through the club in this position before pushing me out. I was completely shocked and more saddened that this was happening than angry.”
A police officer outside told Wall that his experience was both unfortunate and common, he said, but that little could be done. Later, Wall said, the officer spoke to bar staff and heard an accusation that Wall had thrown an elbow. The officer said she didn’t believe the story, Wall said, and he denied it.
No charges have been filed as a result of this incident, Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said. He said Wall spoke with an on-duty officer and described being physically ejected, but Wall told the officer he did not wish for her to take a report.
Dress code stories
After the story appeared online, more than a dozen people described similar experiences at Downtown Sports Bar.
Kim Salmon, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom, said she recently attended a high school reunion there during Final Four weekend. Her husband and a friend, both white, were assured that their work boots met the dress code. When a black friend arrived, wearing Timberland boots and speaking in a gregarious voice, a manager approached Salmon and asked her if she would like to have him thrown out, she said. Timberland boots often are favored by rappers.
When more black friends arrived, Salmon said, their drink and food orders never arrived. Salmon , who is white, said she had to order for them. In the middle of the game’s second half, they were told to leave because the bar was becoming a nightclub and their tables needed to be cleared for a dance floor. They squeezed into a booth but were again asked to leave once the game had ended, she said.
Finally, she said, the black friend in Timberlands was physically escorted out of the building. When Salmon asked why, she said she was told, “I can’t say Timberlands because it’s racist, but I can’t let people like that in my club.”
Soon after, she said, a white woman wearing Timberlands entered the bar. “We really want to make an example of this bar,” said Parker-Fenner, who has obtained a permit to protest and plans to do so late Saturday night. “We’re going to have signs. We’re supposed to wear all-black. We’re allowed to make noise and talk to people.”
Wall’s supporters, about 30 people, held a news conference at the State Capitol on Friday to spread awareness of incidents of bias. His attorney, Alicia Vick, said they are weighing their options regarding legal action.
Irv Joyner, law professor and NAACP attorney, said his group supports Wall.
“What happened to Jonathan is not only unjust, not only bad business practice, but illegal,” Joyner said.