Two Olympic gold medalists from Willingboro, including track and field legend Carl Lewis, say they were refused service at a Cherry Hill restaurant because of their race, an incident Lewis said was a major motivator for his 2011 state Senate bid.
Lewis has not spoken about the incident before and the restaurant's ownership group did not respond to several calls for comment, but Lewis and two other men present that night say there is no question what happened.
Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Lewis along with Willingboro native LaMont Smith, who won gold in the 4X400 relay at the 1996 Atlanta games, say they were with a group of several friends - most of them black - at P.J. Whelihan's in Cherry Hill on a March 2009 night, when a waitress at the well-known pub refused to serve them. The men were in town to honor their former coach, Fred Rucker, on his induction into the South Jersey Track Hall of Fame.
The two men say when the woman first approached the table, she gave them “a look” and walked away. When she came back near the table, Lewis said his assistant asked her if there was a problem. According to the former Willingboro resident, she said “yes there is,” and walked away.
“Someone else came over to the table, looked at us and walked away,” Lewis said.
Smith said the group of friends spread across several tables waited and waited for service that never came.
“Carl and I and some of our other friends hadn’t seen each other in a long time so we were talking and you lose track of time,” Smith said. “An hour went by and then more so we asked what the problem was.”
Both Lewis and Smith say they were then approached by the manager of the restaurant, who according to the two men “made a lot of excuses.”
Lewis said he felt an overt sense of racism and when he told the manager what he believed, the man made no denials, saying only that he was sorry.
“He kept apologizing and making excuses," Lewis said. "I said ‘it is clear what happened. I’ve watched them working around here and the only thing different is the color of our skin,' ” Lewis said. "There were no denials, only excuses."
Another former Willingboro track athlete who was at Whelihan's that night confirmed the account from Lewis and Smith.
“We sat down and we waited and nobody came over to serve us,” said Jon Johnson, now a teacher in Hamilton Township. “I didn’t think much of it at first then I heard Carl talking to the manager and I thought ‘this is real shady.'”
Johnson said there was no explanation for the incident other than racism.
“If you have 30 African Americans sitting there for a long time and not getting served and everyone else around you is getting food, that’s bad news,” he said.
Eventually the party was served but the incident left a bad taste in the mouths of all present, the men said.
Lewis said the following day, he spoke with the ownership group’s general manager, who apologized for the incident and asked if the restaurant could make it up to Lewis.
“I told him no thanks, I’m not coming back,” Lewis said.
Several calls and emails to the restaurant's ownership group, P.J.W. Restaurant Group of Haddonfield, were not returned.
Asked why they didn’t go public with the story in 2009 when the incident happened, all three men said they decided the best way to hurt the restaurant was to boycott it.
“I was brought up that there is a time and place for everything, so for me – my solution was, I left three days later to go home and I’ll never go back there,” Smith said.
"I could have run down the street yelling for Al Sharpton, but I didn't," he said. "I thought the best way to handle it was just not go back."
Johnson also said he won’t go back.
“We held P.J. Whelihan's in high regard until that moment,” Johnson said. “Because we’re all educated we realize the most effective means of damage is boycott. We’re not going to talk bad, we just won’t go back there.”
All three men spoken to said they were particularly floored by the incident because it happened just miles from where they all grew up.
“For me that was the first time anything like that has ever happened to me in my life,” said Smith, who lives in Dallas and works in state government. “What made it more disheartening for me is that I’m from that area. I was home visiting and although I don’t live there anymore my heart is still there and I love to go back,” he said.
Though Lewis said the incident was an impetus behind his Senate run, that bid for office actually spawned another incident of alleged racism directed at the former track star.
During his run, which ended when a judge ruled he had not resided in the state long enough to run for office, Lewis' campaign sent out a fundraising email throughout Burlington County.
Soon after Republican District 8 Assemblyman Pat Delany abruptly resigned from office. Soon after an email surfaced that explained Delany's departure.
Responding to the email blast Delany's wife Jennifer responded to the Democrat’s campaign.
“Imagine, not having to pay NJ state income taxes...It must be nice," she wrote. "Imagine getting a court ruling overturned so your name could get put on the ballot. Imagine having dark skin and name recognition and the nerve to think that equalled (sic) knowing something about politics. Sure, knowing someone with fat purse strings is nice, but you have no knowledge. Remove my email. To think you STOLE my email and name from a complaint letter. I'm reporting you as SPAM.”
The Lewis camp chose not to respond.
Lewis said he will not make another run for the state Senate and is instead moving to the Houston area, where he went to college and still has ties.
He has no hard feeling from his Senate run and none toward the state that rejected him.
As for Gov. Chris Christie, who he said was the driving force behind having him removed from the ballot, Lewis said he has nothing bad to say.
"He has his own personal problems, I'm not going to pile on."
Still, Lewis said there is one thing the governor gave him that he can't take back.
"He handed me my (New Jersey) hall of fame (certificate)," Lewis said. "I have it on tape. He said, if you're ever from New Jersey you're always from New Jersey."
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