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    Visiting lawmaker: Bar in Perry drew color line

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


    PERRY -- Talmadge Branch just wanted a cool draft beer.

    Instead, the Maryland state lawmaker said he got a taste of old crow -- Jim Crow -- when the bartender at Perry Package refused to serve him because he's black.

    Branch said he was told he could have a drink in the back of the building where package liquor is sold, but not up front at the bar.

    "I told her I can't believe we still have separate but equal in this day," Branch, the head of Maryland's legislative black caucus, said Monday. He was visiting friends in Perry on Saturday before driving to a political meeting in Tallahassee.

    Gov. Jeb Bush apparently can't believe the incident either. Bush, who was criticized for not responding quickly enough to minority complaints during last year's election, has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate immediately and report its findings directly to him.

    "Since such actions may constitute a criminal violation of the laws of Florida, I hereby direct you to conduct an inquiry into this matter," Bush wrote Monday to FDLE Commissioner James Moore.

    The incident also brought criticism from Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney. "If the story is true as you relate it, it's very disturbing that in the 21st century we are still fighting battles most of us thought we won decades ago. But hearts and minds are hard to change," Feeney told a St. Petersburg Times reporter Monday.

    Perry Package owner David Holton said the incident was a horrible misunderstanding, and bartender Patricia Hughes just was following his orders to close up the bar area to mop before the night shift. Other customers also were told to move, he said.

    "I think he just thought it was a black thing," Holton said. Branch is welcome back any time, Holton added. "If the guy wants to come have a drink, he can come have a drink as long as he acts decent. He'll be treated just like everyone else. I don't allow no cussing or violence."

    Holton's bar and package store sits on U.S. 19 in Perry, a small paper mill town about 40 miles south of Tallahassee. Antique stores dot the downtown, and Chamber of Commerce brochures proclaim Perry home of the "World's Largest Free Fish Fry," which shares the spotlight with chain saw contests every October during the Florida Forest Festival.

    "It's a friendly town," said John Sheffield, a white resident of nearby Salem who comes to Perry Package several times a week. Sheffield said he was at the bar Saturday and remembers the bartender setting out a bucket and announcing the planned mop-up.

    "They said, "You all move over to the package side,' " Sheffield said as he paused from his game of pool. "I finished my beer and left."

    But Treavette Green, an African-American who grew up in Perry and recently moved back, wasn't surprised to hear about Branch's experience. She has been in Perry Package before and said blacks tend to drink in a back room.

    "They sit on boxes," Green said as she stood downtown with her toddler daughter.

    Branch, who represents one of the poorest districts in Baltimore, said he plans to consult the NAACP and lawyers to discuss possible remedies. He doesn't buy Holton's explanation that the bar was to be cleaned, mainly because a roomful of white patrons continued drinking and playing pool almost an hour after he was told he couldn't drink at the bar.

    The report Perry police wrote after Branch called them seems to back him up. Not only did other people continue drinking while police interviewed Branch and the bartender, but more came in, according to the report.

    "While out in the parking lot Branch and I saw several people enter the building and stay," Perry police Officer J. Weatherspoon wrote. "Branch later added that Hughes had stated that colored people had to be served in the back room or on the drive-through portion of the bar," Weatherspoon continued.

    It isn't Branch's first brush with racial discrimination. The Democrat became a co-sponsor of legislation to end racial profiling after he was pulled over in Maryland in 1999 while driving his silver Mercedes-Benz. The police officer at the time questioned the state delegation tags he had on his car.

    But Branch said Saturday's experience left him feeling humiliated. "It's one thing to read about it happening in the '60s or the '50s, and it's another to actually live it," Branch said.

    - Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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