Sistahs Sue Wine Train for $11 Million
The Sistahs On The Edge Book Club Slap The Napa Valley Wine Train With a Racial Discrimination Lawsuit
by Heather Cassell
Humiliated, 11 members the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Napa Valley Wine Train on October 1.
The women believe they were singled out because they are black. The law suit alleges racial discrimination, libel, defamation and breach of contract. They are seeking $11 million in damages.
The Train Manager Anna Marquinn, who identifies as a Latina, denies that the removal of the women was racially motivated, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
However, on August 22, the book club members were removed from the train in St. Helena allegedly for being too loud and rowdy after a couple of warnings from the Anna, once before the train even rolled out of the Napa station and again along the rail line, according to media reports. The group of mostly black women was escorted through six restored historic Pullman cars to awaiting police as other passengers watched the scene, they say. They were given a bus ride back to the wine train station.
The incident spawned an online movement #LaughingWhileBlack after Lisa Johnson, 47, began posting photos of the incident and commenting about it on her Facebook page.
Some people vowed to boycott the wine train. This past weekend the Soul Wine Train, a bus from Oakland to Napa, toured Black- and Latino-owned Napa wineries in solidarity with the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club and to support the businesses, according to the Facebook event invite.
“That was the most humiliating experience that I have ever had in my entire life,” Lisa tells reporters at a press conference announcing the lawsuit Thursday.
Tears welling up in her eyes as she appeared along with some of the other women from the book club wearing buttons #LaughingWhileBlack. They were joined by their attorney Waukeen McCoy and Reverend Amos Brown, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in San Francisco, as she and the women spoke about the incident and what has happened to them since late August.
While the women have received a great deal of support, they also have been on the receiving end of nasty comments and lies about why the women were kicked off the train from strangers and even disapproval from family members.
The women say they were “personally and professionally shamed,” reports ABC 7 News.
Two of the Antioch women – Allisa Carr, a 48-year old bank manager, and Debbie Reynolds, a 49-year old hospital nurse – were even fired from their jobs after the incident and subsequent comments about their alleged behavior and the explosion of media attention, they tell reporters Thursday.
The two women and Waukeen declined to discuss the terminations of the women’s employment.
Initially the wine train executives responded to the incident with a Facebook post defending the tour company’s right to remove guests who get a bit too rowdy and disturb other guests. At least one guest or group of guests are asked to leave the wine train once a month on average for various reasons, spokesperson Sam Singer tells the New York Times.
There was a swift backlash to the wine train post and it was quickly removed from the wine train’s Facebook page. But not fast enough, Lisa and her friends saw it and cite it in their lawsuit against the tour company.
Following the incident Anthony “Tony” Giaccio, CEO/CFO of the wine train, apologized and took full responsibility for the mistreatment of the women and promised cultural sensitivity training for its approximately 150 employees, in a news statement August 25. During a phone call to Lisa, Tony invited her along with the women back onto the wine train with their family and friends to take up a full car that accommodates nearly 40 passengers as the company’s guests.
Amos calls for cultural sensitivity training for the wine train’s staff and offers the NAACP to provide the training, he tells reporters.
The Napa Valley Wine Train, Inc. was sold by the founding family of the train’s founder the late Rice-a-Roni executive Vince DeDomenico on September 15. It was bought for $11 million to Seattle-based Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Ltd. and Brooks Street, a California-based real estate development and investment company with offices in Walnut Creek, according to media reports.
Noble House also owns and manages Napa’s River Terrace Inn, according to the newspaper.
The wine train rolls through Napa Valley’s famed vineyards starting in Napa, making stops at some of the wineries, offering wine tastings and a gourmet meal to guests during the four-hour train ride, and stopping in St. Helena before turning around to return to Napa.
The Wine Train began rolling down the historic tourist railway built and operated by Samuel Brannan in 1864 for visitors arriving by ferry from San Francisco to Napa up to Calistoga in 1989, reports the Register.
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Wine Train and the 150th anniversary of the rail corridor.
No matter change in ownership or historic, Lisa and her friends find the wine train’s treatment of them and its leadership’s apology unacceptable and didn’t address the “racial dimension” of the incident. They feel the wine train is simply cowtowing to negative publicity.
The women said the apology they got was insufficient, likely spurred only by concerns about bad publicity. They further alleged that there was a racial dimension to the incident that was not addressed.
“This is 2015, and this just cannot happen again,” Lisa says.
The oldest member of the group, Katherine Neal, 85, says she flashed back to when she was about 12 years old and was asked by a store clerk to eat her ice cream outside the store rather than inside where white families enjoyed their ice cream, reports the Times.
The sole white woman in the group, Linda Carlson, 55, believes that if they were all white women their behavior wouldn’t have been an issue, she tells reporters.
“I truly believe from the moment we got on the train we were singled out,” she says. “I truly know what it feels to be a black woman these days and to be discriminated against.”
“This lawsuit highlights that blacks are still being treated differently in America,” says Waukeen, who attempted negotiating a settlement with the wine train, but an offer wasn’t made.
“It has come to the point my friends that even black folks can’t be happy in this country,” says Amos, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Sam says that the wine train takes “allegations of discrimination very seriously,” responding to the lawsuit Thursday in a statement to the media. The tour company hired former FBI agent Rick Smith who is currently investigating the incident. Until the investigation is concluded the wine train isn’t able to provide an “appropriate response” to the lawsuit, he says. Sam asks anyone with information to contact Rick at 415-391-0500.
“The new owner is honored to continue to improve and build upon the Napa Valley Wine Train experience,” says Sam in the statement.
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