Nation/World

Jury awards $1 million to Portland woman who tried to buy gas but was told: ‘I don’t serve Black people’

PORTLAND - A Portland woman won $1 million in damages this week after a jury found she was racially discriminated against by a gas station attendant who told her “I don’t serve Black people.”

Rose Wakefield, 63, had stopped for a fill-up at Jacksons Food Store in Beaverton on March 12, 2020, when she noticed the attendant had ignored her car and was instead pumping gas for other drivers who had arrived later.

The attendant, 23-year-old Nigel Powers, responded: “I’ll get to you when I feel like it” after Wakefield asked for service, according to the lawsuit.

Surveillance footage played during the four-day civil trial showed Wakefield going inside the gas station mart and speaking with the manager and another employee, who eventually went outside and filled up Wakefield’s car.

As she was leaving, Wakefield asked Powers why he had dismissed her. Powers replied that it was because she was Black, then laughed in her face, according to the suit.

Wakefield is Black. Powers, who is white, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“It was humiliating. I felt like a slave without chains,” Wakefield said in an interview after Monday’s verdict. “The bottom line is I can’t take my skin off and lay it down on the couch. I’m going to be who I am.”

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Court records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive show that Wakefield called a corporate hotline that day. But the company didn’t preserve the audio and summarized it in a way that minimized the racist encounter, according to Portland attorney Greg Kafoury, who represented Wakefield in court.

Powers also received a written warning — but only for violating the company’s “first in, first out” service policy, according to company records provided by Kafoury. He was fired a month later after being disciplined four times for looking at his cellphone while on the clock, Kafoury said.

Jacksons tried to settle the case for $12,000 during pre-trial negotations, the lawyer added.

In a statement, Jackson Food Store’s President Cory Jackson said the company has a “zero-tolerance policy for discrimination” and provides ongoing training to ensure its employees treat customers with respect and provide a safe shopping experience.

“After carefully reviewing all facts and evidence, including video surveillance, we chose to take this matter to trial because we were comfortable with our knowledge of the facts of the case,” Jackson said. “As such, we respectfully disagree with the jury’s ruling because our knowledge does not align with the verdict.”

Wakefield is no stranger to racism. Growing up in Northeast Portland in the 1970s, she was bused to Jackson High School on Southwest Barbur Boulevard as part of a one-way desegregation program that put the burden on Black students.

She now works as a retinol imagist at a Veterans Affairs clinic about five minutes away from the gas station at the Tanasbourne Town Center.

“If something like this happens to you, don’t let it slide, that’s my message,” she said. “Because somebody else will have to suffer for what you didn’t take care of.”

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