South Carolina cook who was allegedly enslaved by manager speaks
CONWAY, SC. (WPDE) — Chris Smith still cringes when he thinks about his time at the family-owned J and J Cafeteria in Conway.
Smith, who is mentally disabled, said he started working there as a 12-year old dishwasher.
“I could get along with his wife, his momma, his daddy, his cousin, his brother…I could get along with all of them…but I couldn’t get along with him,” said Smith.
Today Smith is 39.
He said he worked at the restaurant for 23 years. For at least the final 17 of those years, he said that Edwards beat him, burned him with cooking grease, forced him to live in a room behind the restaurant and refused to pay him.
“I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn’t have nobody I could go to,” he said.
He said he was denied access even to his own family.
“I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t see none of my family so that was that,” he said. “That’s the main basic thing I wanted to see was my mom come see me. I couldn’t see my mom…and I couldn’t talk to nobody.”
He said Edwards went as far as to force him to stay in the kitchen of the restaurant or his living space — a unit behind the restaurant — when his family went to J and J.
The Department of Social Services and Conway Police got involved with Smith in 2014. Since that time, he said he’s worked for two restaurants in the Conway area, but he can’t forget Edwards and J and J.
He said Edwards’ family, who also ran the restaurant, did nothing to stop the abuse.
“They knew,” he said. “All of ’em knew. They knew what he was doing.”
He had no support, he said, and was forced to live in a room behind the kitchen.
“It wasn’t really living conditions…It was an office with a bed in it. It wasn’t no kitchen or nothing in it,” he said.
He said Edwards kept him from his mom, dad and six siblings.
He and advocates said he wasn’t even paid.
“I think he’s racist,” Smith said of Edwards. “But I didn’t know that though…until now.”
In 2014, Geneane Caines, a frequent customer, noticed scars on Smith’s body and called for help. She and Abdullah Mustafa, President of the Conway NAACP — who was with us as we spoke with Smith — have been working to get him help and a better job.
Now Smith is working in Conway — and today, he’s optimistic for new opportunities.
“Everybody (is) on my side and that’s how, that’s how I like it,” he said with a grin.
There is no word yet on when Bobby Edwards will have his federal hearing.
We reached out to the Edwards family multiple times Monday for comment. We have not heard back.
J and J Cafeteria is under new management