Tyrone Williams was trying to take his friend Chauntyll Allen out for a nice dinner. Today, Thursday, is her birthday, and the two decided to hit up a Joe's Crab Shack in Roseville Wednesday night for a pre-birthday celebratory dinner.
It wasn't long before both had lost their appetites.
As they settled in to their table, Allen and Williams took in the atmosphere and decor of the chain restaurant. It was Allen who spotted it first: There, part of a decoration on their table, was a photo of a lynching.
The image, which was captioned "HANGING AT GROESBECK, TEXAS ON APRIL 12, 1895," depicts the public execution of Richard Burleson. Burleson had been found guilty of murdering James Garrett McKinnon, a white man, by bludgeoning him to death with a rock the previous year.
Few details are available today about the events that led up to Burleson's conviction and capital punishment. But Williams has no doubt, given the time — roughly one generation removed from the freeing of slaves — and place, that Burleson was the victim of a racist justice system.
The historical record seems to agree with Williams: According to a troubling database on Wikipedia, there were 101 people executed in Texas during the 1890s. Of those 101, 65 were black.
None of this is all that funny, yet, whoever put that image on the table decided to try to make a joke out of it. A cartoon bubble is coming out of the soon-hanged man's mouth. "All I said was I don't like the gumbo!" he says.
Williams and Allen, who are both black, asked to speak to a manager. That manager was profusely apologetic. He'd worked there for 10 years, he said, and these two friends, both activists in local social justice causes, were the first to bring the photo to his attention.
Though they appreciated what seemed to be a sincere response, neither Williams nor Allen felt much like eating. Not there. Not at all. They just called it a night and went home.
Thursday, Williams got a call from a representative of the restaurant's corporate office. He also expressed his apology, though Williams found it a little less heartfelt than the manager's.
"The guy corporate was very, just, corporate," Williams said.
Williams tried asking if that same image might be posted in different Joe's Crab Shack restaurants, or just the Roseville location, but the representative wouldn't give him a straight answer. (A call to Joe's Crab Shack's public relations team found one staffer incredulous that the picture exists at all: "All our tables are blue," she said.)
As recompense, the representative offered a $100 gift certificate to the chain. Williams turned it down. He and Allen are never eating there again.
"The thing is, we had gone there to escape," Williams said. "We're activists, and organizers, and we came to escape from what we endure, the systematic racism, on day to day basis. Unfortunately, we could not."