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Racism Alleged In 'Humiliating' Ejection Of Book Club Members From Napa Wine Train

NAPA (CBS SF) -- A woman who set off a social media firestorm when she chronicled her book club's ejection from the Napa Valley Wine Train on Saturday afternoon said Monday that she has yet to receive an apology from the company.

A spokesman for the train company said Monday morning that they were reaching out to the 11 book club members to apologize, but maintained the group was told to get off the train because they were "disruptive and noisy."

But the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club members think it was because they are black.

The 11 members of the book club gathered at about 11 a.m. Saturday to take the luxurious train ride from downtown Napa to St. Helena and back, sipping wine, eating appetizers and watching the view of Napa Valley vineyards along the way.

One member, author and entrepreneur Lisa Johnson, set out to chronicle the trip on Facebook but soon found herself posting about a very different encounter that left her feeling angry and humiliated.

The train had barely left the downtown Napa station when an employee of the train approached her group and told them they would have to quiet down, Johnson said Monday.

The group of 10 black women and one white woman between 39 and 85 years old were seated in an L-shape, necessitating them to raise their voice if a woman on one side of the group wanted to say something to someone on the other side, Johnson said.

The warning put a damper on their mood, but they tried to keep their voices lower and enjoy the ride regardless, she said.

They had several friendly interactions with other passengers who noticed their matching book club T-shirts and wanted to talk about books and reading with them. The group has been meeting in and around Antioch to discuss books and encourage reading for 17 years. Many of the passersby shared a laugh with them, Johnson said.

But the laughter apparently yielded complaints from some other passengers, as the employee returned and said if they didn't quiet down they would have to leave the train.

Johnson said she was surprised by the threat. "There's 11 of us, if we all laugh at the same time it's going to be loud," she said.

They had even expected a larger group when they booked the reservation and employees with the wine train assured them they could accommodate their group.

"She was very aggressive with us, it was not an inviting tone, it was not a warm tone at all," Johnson said of the employee.

As they were talking to the employee, another woman seated nearby spoke up and said, "This is not a bar," Johnson said, apparently identifying where the complaints about their group were coming from.

Finally, the employee returned a third time and said that when the train arrived in St. Helena, police would be waiting to escort them off the train.

The book club was isolated in a train car as they awaited their arrival in St. Helena. As they were escorted off, they had to walk through nearly every car to the back of the train, despite that two members of the group, an 85-year-old grandmother and a woman recovering from knee surgery, had difficulty walking, Johnson said.

"They made us do a 'walk of shame' while all the other passengers were looking at us, peering at us and wondering what these 11 black women had been doing to get kicked off the train," she said. "It was absolutely the most humiliating thing that I have ever experienced in my life."

Police were waiting for them outside. Johnson said the officers were surprised by the book club as the officers had been told they were responding to a group of "unruly" and "aggressive" passengers. After about 20 minutes, they were taken back to Napa.

To their credit, the employees at the Napa train station were much more accommodating and immediately gave the group a full refund, Johnson said.

But the damage had been done, said Johnson. "In essence they have taken something from us that they can never give us back which is our dignity," she told KCBS Radio. "There was so many passengers looking at us like we were in this fish bowl out the window and imagining what it is we could have done that warranted us to be ejected or taken off the train."

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Johnson said in response to her social media posts, the train company posted its own response saying, "Following verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved."

The post has since been removed from the wine train's Facebook page, but Johnson took a screen capture of it and posted it to her own account on Sunday.

"That's defamation of my character, I never hit anybody," she said.

Other passengers on board the train with them that day posted Yelp reviews accusing the train staff of racism, seeing no other explanation for their behavior, Johnson said. Other groups of white people behaved similarly but were not warned or ejected, she said.

The Napa Valley Wine Train has since hired prolific public relations manager Sam Singer to handle media inquiries as the story gains national attention. Johnson was taking numerous requests for interviews Monday morning.

Singer said today that the company is apologizing to the women and wants to listen to their concerns and complaints. But Johnson said shortly before noon she had yet to speak with anyone there today and had not received an apology.

Groups are asked to leave the wine train about once a month, according to Singer.

"Train staff does not enjoy asking people to leave early, but they have to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all of our guests," he said.

Saturday's incident "was not an issue of bias of any sort, it was an issue of noise level," Singer said.

Singer said he was unaware of the deletion of any Facebook post by the wine train regarding the incident.


© Copyright 2015 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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