Black man enslaved by white manager owed more than US$500,000 in restitution

John Christopher Smith was verbally and physically abused by restaurant manager Bobby Paul Edwards.
John Christopher Smith was verbally and physically abused by restaurant manager Bobby Paul Edwards. Photo credit: Facebook / While Black

A Black man who was enslaved for five years at a restaurant in South Carolina is owed more than half a million dollars in restitution, a court has ruled.

John Christopher Smith, who has intellectual disabilities, worked at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, where he was verbally and physically abused from 2009 to 2014.

Bobby Paul Edwards, the manager of the restaurant, pleaded guilty in 2018 to one count of forced labour and coercing him into working more than 100 hours a week without pay.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay US$273,000 in unpaid wages and overtime compensation.

A recent court ruling on April 21 declared that Smith should be paid US$546,000 - double the amount he was owed, because of the delay in getting his payment.

"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," the ruling stated.

Smith started washing dishes at the restaurant in 1990, when he was 12-years-old.

In an interview with WMBF news in 2015, Smith said he liked the job at first, until Edwards became the manager in 2008.

Between September 2009 and October 2014, Edwards physically abused and threatened Smith and forced him to work overtime without pay.

"He would beat me with belts and all that," Smith told WMBF news. "Take the tongs to the grease of my neck."

Smith said his manager would call him racial slurs, threaten to "stomp" his throat, and beat him "until people would not recognise him".

"For stealing his victim's freedom and wages, Mr Edwards has earned every day of his sentence," Sherri A Lydon, US attorney for the District of South Carolina said in 2019.

"The US attorney's office will not tolerate forced or exploitative labour 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."