Pub accused of banning minorities

Dorchester bar denies charge by Coakley

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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A group of friends went to Peggy O’Neil’s Pub and Grille for a winter birthday celebration, but the fete quickly soured when some in their party were banned because of the color of their skin, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office alleges in a civil rights lawsuit.

The people left standing outside in December were African-American, Hispanic, and Cape Verdean, said the suit, announced yesterday. The birthday celebrant, who was white, was already inside. She came out and tried to intervene, but her efforts were in vain. Owner Caron O’Neil, the suit said, refused to let the other guests come inside.

“When it became clear that they were not going to be allowed into Peggy O’Neil’s to celebrate their friend’s birthday, the friends left the bar feeling hurt, confused, and embarrassed,’’ according to the suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office alleges that the Dorchester establishment engaged in a discriminatory and unlawful pattern of not admitting minorities. The diverse birthday party arrived in two groups that were turned away separately. A third group of black women was allegedly denied entry in April.

The suit seeks monetary damages, civil penalties, antidiscrimination training, and the creation of an antidiscrimination policy.

“No one who lives, works, or visits Massachusetts should be subjected to discrimination,’’ Coakley said in a statement.

The O’Neil family denied the allegations, insisting that bias and inequity are not tolerated on the bar’s premises.

“Absolutely, we do not discriminate against anybody,’’ said O’Neil, named in the suit as the bar’s owner. “We’re a Dorchester neighborhood bar. That’s our customer base.’’

Peggy O’Neil’s has been in the red brick and white building for more than 50 years. The pub, which sits on a stretch of Dorchester Avenue bustling with Vietnamese stores and restaurants, is named after the family matriarch, Margaret “Peggy’’ O’Neil, who died in May.

Tracy O’Neil, Caron’s sister, said a diverse group of men and women walk through the doors and sidle up to the bar seven days a week.

“It’s just a diverse crowd; it’s like anywhere,’’ she said yesterday as a small group of regulars had afternoon cocktails and another patron played Lotto.

The suit alleges that Amilton Baptista and an African-American friend did not receive a warm welcome when they arrived Dec. 17.

They waited in line and watched as the bar’s staff let in up to 10 white customers. But Baptista and his friend were denied entry when their turn came to walk through the doors, the lawsuit said.

Both men, the lawsuit said, showed the bouncer their identification cards, proving they were well over the legal age to enter the bar.

They asked how much it cost to get in and were told “$10 or $15.’’

Although they thought it “strange that the bouncer didn’t know the exact cost of the cover charge,’’ they proceeded. They didn’t get across the threshold.

Caron O’Neil, who had been working inside, stepped out, the suit said, and asked: “This is your first time here, huh?’’

It was, they told her, adding they were there to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

Caron O’Neil, according to the suit, told them: “We don’t want any trouble tonight. I don’t know you guys, and you should try to find another place to go.’’

So they left.

Baptista called his brother, Adilson, who was coming later with other friends, to tell them what happened. Moments later, Adilson Baptista and his friends arrived. As they approached, two black men standing nearby said, “Good luck getting in,’’ the suit said.

At the door, the friends showed the bouncer their IDs and were asked whom they had come to see and if they knew the owner. When they said they did not know the owner, they were denied entry.

Waiting to speak with the manager, they watched as the same bouncer let in white patrons who were standing in line and did not know the owner, the suit said.

“Many of those same Caucasian patrons who were allowed into Peggy O’Neil’s appeared to be intoxicated and were dressed more casually,’’ the suit alleges. “The friends also saw the bouncer reprimand a Caucasian patron for a problem with her identification card, telling her she could ‘get in trouble,’ and proceeding to allow her into the bar.’’

When Caron O’Neil came outside, the suit alleges she told the group: “We don’t like people of your kind here. We’ve been doing this for a while and it’s been working fine and we don’t want any problems. . . . I’m not letting you people in.’’

On April 23, three black women and a white man who had started the evening elsewhere decided to go to Peggy O’Neil’s. Caron O’Neil, according to the lawsuit, asked if they had been there before, saying they did not look like regulars.

Two of the women asked O’Neil if she knew all the people in line. O’Neil said she did. One of the women challenged O’Neil, accusing her of discrimination. O’Neil told them to go elsewhere, prompting a charged response from one of the women. An off-duty police officer separated the woman and O’Neil and told the woman to file a grievance if she was upset.

Another popular nightlife spot tried to invoke a similar door policy in November that resulted in a public apology, a $30,000 fine, and antidiscrimination training for staff.

In the Theatre District, Cure Lounge abruptly closed its doors and kicked out anybody already inside after black patrons - most of whom were Harvard and Yale students and alumni - showed up for a Harvard-Yale football game after-party.

One of the organizers said at the time that club staff asked attendees to leave because they started to attract “gang bangers.’’

The club’s apology remained on its website for 30 days.

Caron O’Neil doesn’t think her establishment will meet the same fate. In the end, she said, “I’m sure it will all clear up.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at