On Tuesday night, Durham activist Takiyah Thompson and several friends walked into Central Park Tavern on Rigsbee Avenue and tried to order drinks. Local anti-racism activists say the bar, which opened this month, refused to serve the group because of their race.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, activist group Defend Durham wrote that a bartender “refused service” to the group of primarily black and brown customers, who were there celebrating Thompson’s birthday and a march held earlier that day following court appearances by several of the activists, who have bee charged in connection with the toppling of a Confederate statue in Durham on August 14.

What started as a celebration turned into a dispute activists say confirms the persistence of racism in the city. (Employees at Central Park Tavern declined repeated requests for comment from the INDY, but the bar’s owner, Mike Cole, disputed the allegations in an interview with the Herald Sun on Thursday.)

Two people who witnessed the incident told the INDY that a bartender recognized Thompson and shouted, “That’s the girl who took down the statue.”

Tensions began rising when a bartender refused to serve anti-gentrification activist Imani Henry, Qasima Wideman, a student at North Carolina Central University who was with Thompson, told the INDY. The bartender, who declined to comment for this story, told Henry, who lives in New York, that his New York State ID was invalid and refused to serve him a drink, according to Wideman, who has also been charged in connection with the August 14 demonstration. Someone else shouted at Thompson from behind the bar, Wideman said.

Wideman said she immediately felt uncomfortable. “They were being obviously hostile to us,” Wideman said. “They became very belligerent.”

“Several people behind the bar and customers pushed some of us out,” she added. “It was kind of a hectic exchange.”
A bartender threatened to call the police as the group exited the bar, according to Grace Nichols, a cultural organizing fellow with Southerners on New Ground, who was also at Central Park Tavern on Tuesday. “I told the [bartender] that cops kill black people, and if the cops come and someone is shot, blood is on her hands,” Nichols said.

A white man followed the group out of the bar and heckled them, according to Nichols. When Henry told the man that the bar was racist, the man yelled back, “Yes, we are racist,” Nichols said.

Cole told the Herald-Sun he had “no idea” the group was involved in removing the Confederate statue.

“They came in and didn’t have ID, and my bartender wouldn’t serve them,” he told the paper.

Out-of- state state ID cards (as opposed to driver’s licenses) are technically not valid forms of identification for buying alcohol in North Carolina. But many bars in Durham accept them. And Nichols said Henry, who regularly travels to Durham, had no problem buying drinks from other establishments in the city.

Both Nichols and Wideman insist that the bar discriminated against the group because of their race. The charge highlights some of Durham’s deepest and most persistent contradictions.

Durham sees itself as progressive city. Meanwhile, it’s gentrifying at breakneck speed, pushing working-class communities out of areas they’ve called home for generations, and turning historically black and brown neighborhoods into spaces where people of color often feel unwelcome, uncomfortable and discriminated against.

Central Park Tavern, which opened in September, sits at the corner of Rigsbee Avenue and West Corporation Street, across from Surf Club. The lot is owned by Rigsbee Street LLC, and bar is owned by Cole, who owned Charlie’s Pub and Grille before it closed in 2015. He is white. The Rigsbee lot used to house Tooties, a black-owned bar and a place where Wideman said people of color felt comfortable.

The development of the Rigsbee Avenue and Geer Street area is one of the starkest examples of gentrification in Durham. The area, now jammed with chic bars catering largely to young white professionals and students, used to house black-owned businesses like Tooties and organizations like El Kilombo Community Center, which shuttered in 2015 due to rising rents. Establishments like these continue to disappear, and the people they served are being priced out of their homes.

In its Facebook post, Defend Durham called on residents to boycott Central Park Tavern and post negative reviews on its Yelp page. By Thursday, twelve people have left Yelp reviews accusing the bar of discriminating against black and brown customers. The website has since posted a notice saying it is monitoring reviews about the business given the controversy and that some reviews may be removed.

“This business recently made waves in the news, which often means that people come to this page to post their views on the news,” an alert on the bar’s Yelp page says. “While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.”

Wideman and Nichols support the boycott, but both want to see the bar go.

“Pulling down a statue is pulling down a symbol of white supremacy,” Wideman said. “But gentrification is a huge manifestation of white supremacy, and running white supremacist businesses out of town is another way of reclaiming space.”