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‘I Wanted to Get Out’: Award to Black Man Enslaved By White Restaurant Manager Doubled to $546K By Federal Court

A federal court ruled last month that a Black man with intellectual disabilities who was enslaved for five years at a restaurant should be awarded double the amount of compensation from the manager, The Washington Post reported this week.

Upon pleading guilty to a “forced labor charge” in 2018, 56-year-old Bobby Paul Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison and directed by a court to repay John Christopher Smith $273,000 in “unpaid wages and overtime compensation at J&J Cafeteria.” Edwards exploited the 43-year-old Smith into working more than 100 hours a week with no pay, using various methods of physical and mental abuse.

Restaurant Manager Pleads Guilty
Bobby Paul Edwards (left) said he subjected John Christopher Smith to years of abuse and would beat him with pots and pans.

On April 21, the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that a district court had not accounted for federal labor laws, warranting him $546,000, twice the amount that he was originally to be paid.

The ruling was returned to district court to reevaluate Smith’s settlement based on the postponement of his payment in agreement with federal labor laws.

“When an employer fails to pay those amounts (regular and overtime pay), the employee suffers losses, which includes the loss of the use of that money during the period of delay,” read the ruling.

Smith worked at J&J Cafeteria, a buffet style restaurant near Myrtle Beach from the age of 12 and enjoyed the job while it was under the management of Edwards’ relatives, court documents state.

However, once Edwards took control of the restaurant in 2009, he began a “reign of terror” that for Smith included isolation, threats of harm and racial harassment.

“Most of the time I felt unsafe, like Bobby could kill me if he wanted,” he said, according to court records. “I wanted to get out of that place so bad but couldn’t think about how I could without being hurt.”

He also claimed that he was the victim of physical abuse from Edwards, who would punch and whip him.

In one brutal account, Edwards, dissatisfied with the speed of Smith’s service, proceeded to press metal tongs covered in hot grease against Smith’s neck.

While Smith’s co-workers were just as fearful of Edwards, and neglected to report his behavior, the mother-in-law of one employee found out about the abuse, and reported Edwards to authorities in October 2014.

In a statement from The Department of Justice, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore said, “Human trafficking through forced labor can happen on farms, in homes, and as today’s case shows – in public places, such as restaurants.”

He added, “Edwards abused an African-American man with intellectual disabilities by coercing him to work long hours in a restaurant without pay. Combatting human trafficking by forced labor is one of the highest priorities of this Justice Department and today’s guilty plea reflects our commitment to seeking justice on behalf of victims of human trafficking.”

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