Black man granted over $500,000 after being enslaved by white restaurant owner for five years

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All the right-wing apologists claiming that slavery wasn’t as bad as it is portrayed in modern history books like to pretend that that heinous institution ended in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

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A recent court ruling, however, demonstrates that at least one White Southerner either never got the message that slavery was illegal or simply decided to ignore the prohibition of enslavement that the Amendment initiated.

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Bobby Paul Edwards, a restaurant owner in Conway, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor for “coercing an African-American man with an intellectual disability to work extensive hours at a restaurant for no pay” when his case originally went to trial back in November of 2019.

According to the press release issued by the Justice Department at the time, Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay nearly $273,000 in unpaid salary and overtime wages to his victim, John Christopher Smith, whom the defendant forced to work over 100 hours a week without pay and who was subject to savage beatings with a belt, fists, and pots and pans.

What the judge in the original sentencing didn’t approve at the time was an “additional equal amount as liquidated damages” — which the DOJ sought in this case as they would in any situation where minimum wages and overtime compensation have not been paid as required — saying that these “statutory punitive damages” were available only in civil cases.

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The Justice Department wasn’t satisfied with the judge’s decision on the liquidated damages, so they appealed that portion of the case.

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Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit finally agreed with the government prosecutors and ruled that Smith was entitled to another $273,000 for his ordeal, which is described in its decision:

“In 1990, when Jack was 12 years old, he started working part-time at J&J Cafeteria as a dishwasher. He has an intellectual disability and an IQ of 70. After a few years of part-time work, Jack dropped out of high school and started working full-time at the restaurant. For the first 19 years of his employment, when the restaurant was owned and managed by different members of the Edwards family, Jack was always paid for his labor.”

“That, however, changed in September 2009, after Bobby Edwards took over the management of the restaurant. Edwards moved Jack into an apartment attached to the restaurant and forced him to work more than 100 hours per week without pay — usually 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for 6 days and 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. Not only did Jack work long hours without pay, he was never given a day off. Edwards effected this forced labor by taking advantage of Jack’s intellectual disability and keeping Jack isolated from his family, threatening to have him arrested, and verbally abusing him. His control over Jack also involved physical abuse. Once, when Jack failed to deliver fried chicken to the buffet as quickly as Edwards had demanded, Edwards dipped metal tongs into hot grease and pressed them to Jack’s neck, resulting in a burn that fellow employees had to immediately treat. Other times, when Jack made supposed mistakes, Edwards whipped him with his belt, beat him with kitchen pans, and punched him with his fists. This treatment left Jack physically and psychologically scarred. Jack later said, ‘I felt like I was in prison. Most of the time I felt unsafe, like Bobby could kill me if he wanted. . . . I wanted to get out of that place so bad but couldn’t think about how I could without being hurt.’”

“Edwards’s reign of terror over Jack ended in October 2014, when a relative of a restaurant employee alerted the authorities to Edwards’s abuse, and the South Carolina Department of Social Services removed Jack from J&J Cafeteria.”

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While Mr. Smith may welcome the additional compensation that the appellate court awarded him, nothing can bring back the five years of his life when he was effectively imprisoned and physically abused.

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That Smith had to wait so long to receive his duly earned compensation is an unfortunate side effect of our sclerotic justice system, but that Bobby Paul Edwards had the audacity of evil-heartedly enslaving another human being in the 21st century is unimaginable, except to GOP apologists who want America’s schoolchildren to learn that slavery wasn’t so bad after all and that some slaves missed the security of the plantation after they were freed.

Perhaps these people should spend some time in Bobby Paul Edwards’ kitchen.

Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter. 

Original reporting by Sarah Al-Arshani at Insider.

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Vinnie Longobardo

Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile, & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.

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