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License board clears Southie bar of racism charge

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Smith

BOSTON — The Boston Licensing Board voted unanimously last Thursday to drop charges that Tom English’s Cottage in South Boston had intended to mock Black History Month by setting up a display of about 20 stuffed monkeys and other jungle animals.

The controversy began in mid-February when a Boston Herald reporter wrote in a news story that an unnamed bartender had told him that the jungle display was a tribute to Black History Month, a national month-long observance in February honoring African-American achievements and contributions to American culture.

Last Tuesday, owner Tom English told the Board that the jungle exhibit was one of numerous seasonal displays he has used to decorate his bar for years. "People get sick of winter and want to go into a bar with a tropical flair," he said. "It makes it more comfortable."

Two bartenders told the Board that they neither made nor heard any racist comments about the display, and a black patron of the bar said that she had never heard anyone refer to the display in racist terms.

The Herald reporter refused to testify at the hearing and the Board declined to subpoena him or any other Herald employees. No one testifying at the packed hearing claimed to have heard racial comments.

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Board chairman Daniel Pokaski expressed exasperation with the entire matter. "What are we dealing with? A remark made by a bartender," he said. "We’re not talking about life or death."

City Council president James Kelly of South Boston told reporters that English is "a very decent man" and that there was "no evidence of any racial intent."

Black leaders, however, claimed that the ruling by the Board of three white men was itself based on racism. "I believe the Licensing Board was in error in its ruling and that the ruling itself was biased," said black City Councilor Charles Yancey. He and another black city councilor called for an investigation into the Board’s decision.

The Mass. Commission Against Discrimination, meanwhile, is to decide this week whether to pursue the matter through its own investigation.

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