COLUMBIA, S.C. – A South Carolina barbecue chain known for its pro-segregation stance in a landmark 1960s case and its embrace of the Confederate flag in 2000 is facing allegations of racism and sexual harassment by the fired general manager of one of its restaurants.
According to a lawsuit filed this week by a Black woman who worked at a Maurice’s Piggie Park BBQ location in Columbia, the man who ran it, general manager Jeff Harrison, coerced her early last year into a sexual relationship with promises of a raise, which he paid.
She says she quit after he grew “irate” and “more threatening” when she rebuffed his additional sexual advances. The Associated Press isn’t naming the woman because she is an alleged victim of sexual abuse.
In a separate lawsuit brought last month by Damien Wooden, another Black former employee, Wooden contends that Harrison left him racist voicemails including slurs and threatening to break his jaw after he told Harrison to stop calling and harassing the female employee who quit.
The lawsuits, which seek undisclosed damages, accuse the company of negligent supervision and accuse Harrison of intentionally inflicting emotional distress, assault and battery.
The AP did not hear back after leaving messages Wednesday evening with multiple listed phone numbers and an email address believed to be Harrison's.
A company receptionist told the AP that Maurice's Piggie Park BBQ had no comment. Its president, Lloyd Bessinger, told ABC Columbia News that the company “does not condone or accept any sexual or racial behavior.”
“When I heard of Mr. Harrison’s behavior I fired him imminently,” Bessinger said in the statement. "We are a local family business that supports the community by providing jobs & great BBQ for 60 years.”
But the plaintiffs' lawyers said the incidents show that leaders haven't learned from the company's past bigotry.
In 1964, a waitress at a Piggie Park Drive-In refused to take two Black customers' order. Owner Maurice Bessinger justified his refusal to serve Black customers inside his stores — conveyed through window signs — based on his religious opposition to racial integration. In a lawsuit over the matter, a federal judge ruled in 1966 that such beliefs couldn't be practiced “in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens" — marking a victory for the civil rights movement.
The U.S. Supreme Court later called Bessinger's religious freedom argument “patently frivolous” in a 1968 decision that established attorneys' fees could be awarded to plaintiffs in successful civil rights cases.
In 2000, Bessinger opposed the South Carolina Legislature's removal of the Confederate flag from the dome of the state Capitol by flying it outside of all his restaurants. Walmart then banned the restaurant chain's famous mustard-based barbecue sauce during an NAACP-led boycott that Bessinger claimed cost him $20 million, according to The State newspaper.
“It’s a cultural issue more than anything else and they just haven’t done enough,” said Bakari Sellers, a civil rights attorney and former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. “It just shows there’s a long way to go, to say the least.”
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.