A South Carolina restauranteur was sentenced to prison after admitting he used violence, threats, and intimidation to force a black man to work more than 100 hours a week with no pay in a stunning case of throwback slavery.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge R. Bryan Harwell sentenced 54-year-old Bobby Paul Edwards to 10 years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor, according to a press release from the Department of Justice. Prosecutors say that Edwards, who managed his family’s restaurant, forced Chris Smith, an intellectually disabled black man, to work for free and live in a small room behind the restaurant. Court documents show that Edwards physically abused Smith for at least 17 years, including whipping Smith with a belt, beating him with pots and pans and even burning him with hot grease.
In 1996, when Smith was only 12 years old, he accepted a job at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, S.C., WPDE reports. Six years later, Edwards took over as manager and stopped paying Smith. Over the next 17 years, Edwards would torture, imprison and withhold pay from Smith, claiming that his pay was kept in an “account” that was inaccessible to Smith.
A federal lawsuit filed on Smith’s behalf claims that Smith worked 18 hours a day, six days a week. On Sundays, he only had to work 11 hours. During his entire 23 years of enslavement at J&J, Smith claims he never had a work break or a day off. Forced to live in a “cockroach-infested” apartment behind the business, Smith alleges that Edwards’ family never tried to intervene.
“They knew,” said Smith. “All of ‘em knew. They knew what he was doing.”
When Smith’s family would try to check on him, Edwards would lock Smith in the kitchen or even in the freezer. On the rare occasion that Smith indicated displeasure or tried to escape, he was hit in the head with a frying pan, burned with hot tongs, beaten with belt-buckles and called the n-word repeatedly. Customers reported that they sometimes heard Smith being beaten and screaming for his life.
“I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn’t have nobody I could go to,” Smith explained. “I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t see none of my family so that was that…That’s the main basic thing I wanted to see was my mom [to] come see me.”
Geneane Caines, who was friends with the Edwards family, was a frequent customer at J&J and her daughter, who worked at the eatery, told her how Edwards abused Smith. Once, while eating at the restaurant, she noticed signs of abuse.
“Chris came out of the kitchen and put some food down on the bar,” Caines told WPDE. “He leaned one way over and when he did, I could see [a scar] on his neck.”
After looking into the situation, Caines reported Edwards to the Department of Social Services, who rescued Smith. Caines also alerted Abdullah Mustafa, President of the Conway chapter of the NAACP. They helped Smith get on his feet and Caines allowed Smith to stay in her home for two months.
Edwards was sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty to one count of forced labor. He was also ordered to pay $272,952.96 in restitution. (Or as Merriam-Webster correctly defines it: “Reparations.”)
“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” said U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon for the District of South Carolina. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will not tolerate forced or exploitative labor in South Carolina, and we are grateful to the watchful citizen and our partners in law enforcement who put a stop to this particularly cruel violence.”
The next day, Lydon, an ever-vigilant protector of the people, prosecuted 28-year-old Erron Jordan. Jordan was stopped by a Conway police officer because his window tint was too dark. After cops noticed the “odor of marijuana,” police found a small amount of illegal drugs, prescription pills and a firearm in the car.
Jordan was sentenced to 12 years in prison and three years of supervised probation.
Jordan has never been convicted of a violent offense.
Oh, “Justice” Department, you almost had me.
If you or your loved ones would like to dine at J&J Cafeteria, it is open 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
It is still owned by the Edwards family.