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Feds sue W.Va. bar for discrimination

March 27, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. - The U.S. Justice Department Thursday filed suit against the owners of Images nightclub, claiming the owners refused to allow African Americans to enter the bar.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Wheeling, W.Va., alleges that Images falsely told African Americans who wanted to enter the club that it was private and open only to members.

White customers, however, were routinely admitted without regard to membership, according to the Justice Department.

Images is located along W.Va. 51 in Jefferson County about a half mile east of the Berkeley County border.

The Justice Department suit alleges that the bar is violating Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That section of the law prohibits places of public accommodation, including nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and other places of entertainment, from discriminating on the basis of race, Justice Department officials said.

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"This case demonstrates the sad fact that even in 1997, illegal discrimination in our public places continues to plague our society," William D. Wilmoth, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, said in a statement. "We hope that by taking legal action such as this, we will stop the despicable practice of denying access to public facilities solely because of the color of one's skin."

The owner of Images could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

The suit seeks a court order halting the alleged discrimination at the lounge, and requests that the nightclub make amends for past alleged discrimination, according to the Justice Department.

George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group had been aware of alleged discrimination at the bar for about two years.

"These types of things are taking place all over," Rutherford said.

Rutherford said if the bar is found to have discriminated, federal officials should "close them and make them pay."

Jim Tolbert, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, agreed with Rutherford that discrimination is more widespread than most people realize. Tolbert said he recently received a complaint from a couple who tried to enter a bar in Martinsburg, W.Va.

The black man and his white girlfriend were told by bar workers that they could not enter because they were not members, Tolbert alleged. At the same time, other people were going in "left and right" and not being asked about membership, said Tolbert.

"I think it's significant that the clubs have state licenses and it's happening all over the state," said Tolbert, who lives in Charles Town, W.Va.

The Justice Department in April 1996 received a complaint from a West Virginia couple, department officials said. It could not be determined who the two people were.

Although the Justice Department has sued bars in other states for racial discrimination, it is believed this is the first case of its kind in West Virginia, said Isabelle Thabault, a Justice Department attorney who is working on the case.

"We will continue to look at other clubs in the country and possibly other clubs in West Virginia," said Thabault. If the Justice Department finds further violations, it will "enforce the law to the fullest extent," Thabault said.

Thabault said her department has over the years seen a number of common forms of discrimination used by bars. One is requiring blacks to produce up to five pieces of identification to gain entry to a bar while requiring white customers to present only one ID card.

Another common form of discrimination in bars entails enforcing a strict dress code for blacks, Thabault said.

Several patrons in Images Thursday afternoon said they have never noticed the bar treating blacks unfairly. One customer said he saw a black doorman in the bar about a month ago.

"I don't think there is any bar around here that would discriminate against a black person," said another patron who did not want to be identified.

Linda Statler, president of the Tri-County Club Owners Association, said she does not believe discrimination is a problem in local bars. Statler said many bars in the Eastern Panhandle have black members, and most of the bars she has been in have had black patrons.

"I really don't believe it's an issue," said Statler, who owns the Huddle Club in Kearneysville.

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