Black man enslaved by White restaurant manager should be awarded more than $500,000, court says

A Black man with intellectual disabilities who was enslaved for five years at a restaurant in Conway, S.C., should be awarded double the amount of restitution from the White man now imprisoned for the crime, according to a recent court ruling.


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As part of his 2019 guilty plea to a forced labor charge, Bobby Paul Edwards, 56, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered by a court to pay back John Christopher Smith $273,000 in unpaid wages and overtime compensation at J&J Cafeteria.

The Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled April 21 that the previous amount decided by a district court “had erred” in not accounting for federal labor laws entitling him to $546,000, or double the amount he was owed from his imprisonment between 2009 and 2014. Through physical violence, threats and intimidation, Edwards coerced Smith, 43, into working more than 100 hours per week without pay, The Washington Post reported.

The appellate court sent the ruling back to the district court to recalculate Smith’s award based on the delay in getting his payment under 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,” the ruling stated.

Edwards’s public defender didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the latest ruling.

Smith started washing dishes and busing tables at J&J Cafeteria in 1990, when he was just 12 years old. He had loved his full-time employment there when the business was operated by Edwards’s relatives, according to court documents.

But when Edwards took over managing the restaurant in September 2009, paid wages and decent treatment would soon be nonexistent.

Edwards moved Smith into a roach-infested apartment he owned that Smith’s attorneys later described as “sub-human,” “deplorable” and “harmful to human health.”


Smith was forced to work more than 100 hours each week without pay and no days off as Edwards took advantage of the Black man’s mild cognitive disability, court records state.

Edwards’s “reign of terror” included keeping Smith isolated from his family, threatening to have him arrested and calling him racial slurs.

Smith said he felt like he was in prison with the threat of death.

“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.”

Smith alleged that Edwards injured him many times over the years. He was whipped with belts and kitchen pans and punched multiple times by Edwards, court records state.

One of the more heinous alleged acts of brutality came when Edwards thought Smith didn’t deliver fried chicken to the buffet as quickly as he demanded. In response, Edwards dipped metal tongs into hot grease and pressed them into Smith’s neck, according to court records.


Fellow employees at the restaurant who heard or had seen the abuse were reluctant to report it out of fear of Edwards.

Geneane Caines helped put an end to Smith’s abuse when she reported Edwards to authorities in October 2014. Caines had a daughter-in-law who worked at the restaurant and got involved because she cared about Smith’s safety, according to WYFF.

“Customers that were going in there would hear stuff and they didn’t know what was going on, and they would ask the waitresses, and the waitresses were so scared of Bobby they wouldn’t tell them then what it was,” she said to WMBF.

Smith was immediately taken into Adult Protective Services, and Edwards was charged with second-degree assault and “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking.”

“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” Sherri A. Lydon, U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, said in 2019. “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.”


Derek Hawkins and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.

Correction: The initial version of this story contained the phrase “the court argued in its filing.” Courts rule; parties argue and file. The story has been updated.

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