The CEO of Napa Valley Wine Train is apologizing after a group of women, most of them black, were kicked off one of its trains over the weekend for allegedly being too loud. But one of them, Lisa Renee Johnson, says her friends still feel humiltated and that the incident was "racially charged."
The incident took place on Saturday. Johnson and 10 other members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club, all black except one, were escorted off a train by police. A Napa Valley Wine Train rep told The Napa Valley Register on Sunday that at least three passengers in the same car complained about the women's noise level.
Johnson documented the events on Facebook, along with photos and the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack. Following her posts and press coverage, scores of people began to post negative reviews about the company on Yelp.
"We were truly kicked out because we were 'laughing while black'... It was racially charged," Johnson told NBC Bay Area.
Sam Singer, a spokesman for the Napa Valley Wine Train, told The New York Times, "No, it's not racism, it's acute insensitivity" and that the staff will undergo additional sensitivity training.
Napa Valley Wine Train CEO Anthony "Tony" Giaccio contacted Johnson late on Monday and spoke to her to apologize. She told NBC Bay Area that Giaccio's apology "wasn't authentic."
Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP
He also wrote an apology letter to the book club, according to a statement from the company.
"I want to apologize for your experience on the Napa Valley Wine Train on Saturday, Aug. 22," Giaccio said in his letter. "We accept full responsibility for our failures and the entire chain of unfortunate events you experienced."
She posted several photos from the incident, including one showing a white woman inside a train car that she says had confronted the group about their laughter. She did not identify her by name.
"Facebook Family, we have a problem!" she wrote. "We sipped wine, enjoyed each other's company but our trip is being cut short...this women said our laughter annoyed her because this is 'not a bar'... We are a group of 12...if we all laugh at the same time it's loud! When we get to St. Helena they are putting us off the train."
"WOW! They paraded us through 6 cars and none of us are even drunk...the police were waiting," she added.
"Clearly, we knew in advance when we booked your party that you would be loud, fun-loving and boisterous—because you told us during the booking process that you wanted a place where your Club could enjoy each other's company," Giaccio said in his letter. "Somehow that vital information never made it to the appropriate channels and we failed to seat your group where you could enjoy yourself properly and alert our train's staff that they should expect a particularly vibrant group."
"We were insensitive when we asked you to depart our train by marching you down the aisle past all the other passengers," he continued. "While that was the safest route for disembarking, it showed a lack of sensitivity on our part that I did not fully conceive of until you explained the humiliation of the experience and how it impacted you and your fellow Book Club members."
Johnson said the women received a full refund, but that it wasn't enough, as they still felt "totally humilated."
During Giaccio's conversation with Johnson, she suggested to him cultural and diversity sensitivity training for his company's employees
He said in his letter that per Johnson's recommendation, his Napa Valley Wine Train staff members "could use additional" training.
"I pledge to make sure that occurs and I plan to participate myself," he wrote. "As I offered in my conversation with you today, please accept my personal apologies for your experience and the experience of the Book Club members. I would like to invite you and other members to return plus 39 other guests (you can fill an entire car of 50) as my personal guests in a reserved car where you can enjoy yourselves as loudly as you desire."
"I want to conclude again by offering my apologies for your terrible experience," he said.
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