Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an inquiry yesterday into a weekend incident at a small-town Florida bar in which Maryland Del. Talmadge Branch, the head of the state Legislative Black Caucus, says he was denied service because of his race.
Branch, 45, said in an interview last night that he was shaken by the run-in Saturday afternoon with a female bartender at a bar in the North Florida town of Perry.
He said the bartender told him to go to a back room, even though other patrons, all white, were drinking at the bar.
Branch refused and called the police.
"I thought we'd put that `separate but equal' stuff behind us," Branch said.
In a letter sent yesterday, Governor Bush, the brother of President Bush, instructed the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to began an "inquiry" into the incident. In the letter, the governor said that Branch "may" have been refused service because of his race, which "may constitute a criminal violation."
A woman who identified herself as an employee of the bar said last night that the bartender refused to serve Branch in the main bar area because it was being cleaned.
The woman, who refused to give her name, said Branch became upset because she called him "son."
In June 1999, Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat, was pulled over downtown while driving his car with Maryland legislative license tags. He was given no citation and police officials apologized.
The Florida incident occurs at a time when many black lawmakers remain bitter about problems African-Americans faced in casting ballots in the November election.
The incident, first reported last night by Maryland Public Television, began Saturday afternoon when Branch stopped for a beer at the Perry Package Lounge.
Branch had been staying in Perry and was heading to Tallahassee for a business meeting.
Branch said that several customers were at the bar. But, he said, when he asked for a beer, the bartender told him to go into a small, empty room in the back. The delegate refused and the bartender declined to serve him.
Branch said the bar became silent during this conversation and his stomach started churning.
"I couldn't believe it," Branch told The Sun. "I started thinking about the early Sixties and figured I better leave right now."
Branch said he doesn't recall anyone from the lounge telling him directly that he was being denied service with the other customers because he is black.
Outside the bar, Branch called the Perry Police Department. About a half-hour later, one of the officers accompanied Branch back into the bar.
Inside, the bartender said Branch had arrived while the bar was closing for cleaning, according to a report filed by a Perry officer.
The bartender, identified as Patricia Grace Hughes, could not be reached for comment. The other employee said the lounge serves "mostly white" customers but does not restrict blacks.
She said employees tried to explain the situation to Branch. "I asked him what his name was, and I called him `son.'"
According to the police report, several patrons remained in the bar after Branch was denied service. Hughes, the bartender, told police that Branch was a "troublemaker" from Tallahassee who had been in the bar before, according to the report.
Branch said he had never been in the bar before.