Federal lawsuit alleges slavery at Conway restaurant

WPDE file image of J&J Cafeteria from November 2014.

(WPDE) -- A federal lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Christopher Smith, a mentally handicapped African American man, against J&J Cafeteria, Ernest Edwards and Bobby Paul Edwards of Conway, South Carolina alleging slavery, according to a news release from McLeod Law Group.

The lawsuit alleges Smith was physically and mentally abused for many years as an employee and tenant of the restaurant, according to the same release.

Fourteen causes of action were filed, among them, slavery, assault and battery, false imprisonment, violations of the Fair Labor and Wages Acts and numerous forms of discrimination.

In November 2014, Bobby Paul Edwards, former owner of J&J Cafeteria in Conway, was charged with second degree assault and battery.

Edwards was charged after a complaint of abuse and torture was made by the Department of Social Services.

DSS officials received a report from the South Carolina Governor's office about a vulnerable adult who worked on location and was being abused, according to a Conway police report.

According to an arrest warrant, Edwards engaged in a pattern of beating and torturing his employee, including burning him, beating him with a belt, choking him, slapping him and punching him with a closed fist.

Because of the injuries, the victim had burn scars all over his body, scratches and other scars from being hit with an object such as a belt, according to the arrest warrant.

Conway police assisted DSS in the initial interviews of the employee, according to a Conway police report. DSS took the employee to an undisclosed location for his safety after he agreed to leave the business, the report said.

According to the Horry County Public Index, Edwards still faces those charges.

On Monday, WPDE called J&J Cafeteria for a comment from Edwards and were told that he no longer owns J&J Cafeteria.

We called another restaurant Edwards' owns and he declined to comment.

The Conway NAACP chapter held a meeting Monday night and discussed the lawsuit and what it alleges happened to Christopher Smith.

NAACP Conway Chapter President Abdullah Mustafa said he is familiar with Smith's story.

He said it's unjust what happened to him.

"In this particular atmosphere where he was at, he was conditioned and he feared going anywhere. That's why he wasn't able to break away," said Abdullah. "Not only that, but when his mother and family throughout the years was going to J & J Cafeteria to see him, they wouldn't even allow them to see him."

Mustafa acknowledged Janine Caines and her husband for being the ones who helped Smith, even letting him live in their home for a period of time.

Janine said they ate at J & J Cafeteria numerous times.

She said a family member was working at the restaurant and witnessed some of the abuse described in the lawsuit.

"They knew this was wrong. And again, if it wasn't for them, Christopher would still be there being abused," said Mustafa. "So we love Janine and her family. And she should be commended."

Mustafa said Christopher Smith lives locally, and he said with the help of the Caines and the NAACP, he has been able to work and live on his own for several months.

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