A man wearing a scarecrow costume carrying a noose caused a stir at a Halloween party Wednesday night at a landmark South Jersey restaurant and bar.
He walked on stilts and posed for photographs in the crowded establishment.
The outfit won first place at the gathering at the Adelphia Restaurant and Nightclub in Deptford. Owner Bill Balis posed for a photograph with the noose around his neck, an image that ended up on the restaurant's Facebook page.
But at least one diner was aghast.
Jaslyn Williams, 24, of Lindenwold, said Friday she was enjoying the night out with friends when she saw the scarecrow. Initially, she thought it was a nice costume. But then, she said, she noticed the noose.
"I was mind-blown. It was shocking," said Williams, who is black. "I was so angry."
Williams, a social worker, said she stopped several other black party-goers and asked: "Do you know it's a noose? It's not just a costume. It's a message."
A photograph of the noose around Balis' neck quickly went viral on social media, touching off a furor before it was removed. Civil rights groups noted that the noose is a symbol of intimidation to black Americans and blasted the act as racially insensitive.
Gloucester County NAACP chapter president Loretta Winters said she received numerous text messages and phone calls Thursday from residents upset about the photograph. She said she had requested a meeting with the restaurant's owners.
"I, as many others are appalled that your establishment would condone such an act given its symbolic implications for black people throughout history," Winters wrote to the restaurant. "The American history of lynching black people is well known and the 'hangman's noose' has been a historical symbol of intimidation."
Haddonfield lawyer Joseph Grimes, who represents the restaurant, said the costume was part of a Halloween party, not a political event, and that people were "reading too much into that photograph."
The restaurant, in business for 30 years, has a diverse workforce and customers of all races, he said.
"We don't see any racial context in the photo. Obviously, there was no intent to offend anyone," Grimes said Friday. "They didn't do anything wrong here."
The popular Gloucester County night spot sponsored the first of three Halloween parties at the venue Wednesday night, according to its Facebook page. A contest offered cash prices for the scariest, sexiest, and most original costume. A second Halloween costume party was scheduled for Friday night.
The restaurant patron dressed as a scarecrow won best costume, selected by applause by the party attendees, Grimes said. The man works at a haunted house business in the area, he said. A flier for the event advertised a $1,500 prize for the best costume.
Grimes said the Facebook post was removed after the restaurant received complaints. The restaurant blocked comments on its social media accounts after receiving threats online that were reported to police, he said, adding, "Some people have seized upon this to make what we view is an unjustified attack on Adelphia."
In a screen shot of a Facebook message that also has been removed, the restaurant said: "We are sorry that you all feel offended by a HALLOWEEN COSTUME PARTY but quite frankly, this picture is nothing but a picture. Obviously if you were customers of ADELPHIA you would know all of the good we do for the community and charities."
The photograph was condemned as "highly offensive and insensitive" by Walter L. Hudson Sr., chairman of the National Action Awareness Alliance in Pennsville. He demanded an apology from the restaurant owners, and said a boycott and protests are planned for the near future.
"Folks thought that it was nothing wrong with lynching black people or not giving us the right to vote. To see this blatant disrespect — and how the owners are so cavalier — is more of a reason for people to stop spending their money with Adelphia's," Hudson said.
Located across from Deptford Mall, Adelphia advertises itself as a family-friendly restaurant with a broad American menu, plus a lounge with a light-up dance floor. It is a popular venue for weddings, banquets, and other large gatherings.
In her letter, Winters said the NAACP would offer to provide cultural awareness and sensitivity training. Grimes said restaurant owners would be willing to meet with the group but don't see a need for training.
"If someone saw this and didn't see that it was wrong, we obviously have a problem," Winters said.
Said Grimes: "In our view, they've overreacted to the photograph."
Civil rights activists see the sensitivity as justified.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate and bias incidents have increased recently across the country. There have been racial incidents at several school districts recently in the Philadelphia region, including Washington Township in Gloucester County and Cheltenham.
A musician at the Metropolitan Opera in New York found a noose last Saturday in the men's locker room, and police there were investigating it as a possible hate crime, the New York Post reported.