Paula Deen ordered African-American workers to “dress in an old-style Aunt Jemima outfit” and ring a dinner bell, according to a woman who is still employed at the disgraced cook’s Georgia restaurant.
Following Deen’s dramatic fall from grace after her admission that she had used racial slurs, The New York Times‘ Kim Severson went to Savannah to check out the former food network host’s crumbling empire. Severson spoke to Dora Charles, a black cook who helped Deen open her Lady & Sons restaurant over 20 years ago.
“She said, ‘Stick with me, one day if I get rich, you’ll get rich,’” Charles explained. “It just passed me by. You know, I’m not going to run behind her and say, ‘You promised me, you promised me. Where my half? Where my part?’ You know? It wasn’t all about that. Actually, all I was looking for was a good salary.”
But Charles said that when Deen launched her Food Network show, she was was only getting paid $6.50 an hour.
“I told her, at times, I didn’t even have enough money to buy my own medications,” she recalled, demonstrating how Deen once casually tossed a $100 bill at her when she complained that she couldn’t afford her medical bills.
“She was sitting across the table and she said — it didn’t reach me — and she said, ‘Here’s a hundred dollars, go buy your medicine.’”
Severson noted that Deen had admitted during a May 17 deposition that she had wanted to dress waiters likes slaves for a Southern-style wedding.
“Yeah, she wanted [Employee Ineata Jones] ‘Jellyroll’ to dress like that as well,” Charles remarked.
And the slavery theme wasn’t just limited to Deen’s wedding fantasy, according to the Times:
Ms. Deen used Ms. Jones for restaurant theater. At 11 a.m., when the doors opened at the Lady & Sons, she stood in front and rang an iron dinner bell, something she had asked Mrs. Charles to do as well. An image of Ms. Jones doing just that was turned into a postcard sold at Paula Deen stores.
Ms. Jones was also in charge of making hoecakes, the cornmeal pancakes served to every guest. Ms. Deen had designed a station so diners could watch them being made. At both jobs, Mrs. Charles and other employees said, Ms. Deen wanted Ms. Jones to dress in an old-style Aunt Jemima outfit.
“Jellyroll didn’t want to hear that,” Mrs. Charles said. “She didn’t want to do that.”
“I said, ‘I’m not ringing no bell,’” Charles insisted. “That’s a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day.”
“Do you feel like Paul Deen is racist?” Severson wondered.
“I do, I do,” Charles admitted after a long pause.
“Have you ever heard Paul Deen use the N-word?” Severson asked.
“I’ve heard her used the N-word,” Charles replied. “She say, ‘I tell all y’all n*ggers, that’s what’s wrong with y’all n*ggers now today.’”
Deen’s public relations team has argued that no employee was ever made to dress up like Aunt Jemima and ring a dinner bell.
“Fundamentally Dora’s complaint is not about race but about money,” they said in a statement. “It is about an employee that despite over 20 years of generosity feels that she still deserves yet even more financial support from Paula Deen.”
At the time of publication, Charles was reportedly still employed by Deen’s Lady & Sons restaurant, but she said she realized that her time there was almost over. She hopes to one day open her own restaurant.
Watch this video from The New York Times, broadcast July 25, 2013.