“Starbucks is Not Just a Place To Buy a Cup of Coffee”: Race and the Boundaries of Urban Public Life

“Starbucks is Not Just a Place To Buy a Cup of Coffee”: Race and the Boundaries of Urban Public Life

When Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two young African American entrepreneurs, entered a Starbucks coffee shop on April 12, 2018, for a business meeting in downtown Philadelphia, neither expected to be caught in the boundary between urban public and private space. The two men arrived at the café and awaited another associate to discuss a potential business opportunity. Shortly after entering, Nelson asked the manager to use the restroom and was told that the facility was for paying customers exclusively. Nelson and Robinson thought little of the interaction; similar policies around bathroom use are common. “I just left it at that,” Nelson later told a reporter.[1] Moments later, the manager, while never asking the men to leave directly, phoned the Philadelphia police requesting assistance with “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Two officers arrived soon after and demanded Nelson and Robinson vacate the premises. Police placed handcuffs on the two men and escorted them out, charging them with trespassing and creating a disturbance, despite no witness testimony of misbehavior. Interviewed later, Robinson stated he understood the company guidance restricting non-paying patrons, but that he disagreed with how the manager applied the policy. “I understand that rules are rules,” he said, “but what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong.”[2]

Images of the incident, captured by other café patrons, went viral across the Internet and commenters from across the country shared outrage at similar experiences. The mayor of Philadelphia condemned the incident lamenting that the expulsion of Nelson and Robinson “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”[3]

Spaces like Starbucks are an important part of the social and cultural fabric of modern cities. They sit as a middle ground between public and private space; a private business, yet used by the public for work, business, and social life sometimes with or without a purchase. As the company’s chief executive explained, “Our concept has always been that Starbucks is in the community. It’s a gathering place…a warm and welcoming environment for all customers.”[4] Philadelphia’s mayor reiterated the place of Starbucks in city life: “Starbucks is not just a place to buy a cup of coffee, but a place to meet up with friends or family members, or to get some work done.”[5] This overlap, however, has limits, as Robinson and Nelson discovered when the police intervened on behalf of the business.

The battle between an individual’s right to access and the right of a business proprietor to remove undesirable patrons has long been waged around places of public accommodation, particularly in American cities. Race has long been a central catalyst for conflict. In the nineteenth century, African Americans forced white business owners to contend with their participation in urban public life. Following the Civil War, in particular, as black men and women began to demand entry to urban businesses they challenged this boundary, asserting their right to patronize any business and rejecting a businesses owner’s supposed “private right” to exclude. Indeed, in Philadelphia, just blocks from the present day Starbucks, in 1876 the Bingham House denied accommodation to southern African American minister Fields Cook. The manager denied a room to Cook, even as he served white patrons. He told Cook, he was welcome to remain in the lobby, however. Cook sued the proprietor, arguing that the recently passed Fourteenth Amendment protected his right to accommodation. A judge agreed, marking the first successful use of the amendment in such a case.[6]

Racial discrimination in venues like the Boston Theater prompted African Americans to seek changes to Massachusetts law. “Stage and Auditorium of the Boston Theater,” Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 9, no. 19 (November 10, 1855): 296.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, as explored in my 2015 article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era, African Americans had a history of challenging a business’s right to exclude, and in doing so, they redefined the boundaries of urban public life.[7] It was a challenging process, however, and activists faced major setbacks. In December 1856, African American barber Julian McCrea purchased a ticket in the upper balcony for a performance at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. As he ascended the stairs, a doorman barred McCrea from entering the theater. He refused to leave and in response the doorman summoned the police. Confronted by the officers, McCrea invoked the U.S. Constitution in his defense. “I have a right to enter,” he explained furiously, “and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights make no difference by my color.”[8] The police then escorted the still angry McCrea from the building. McCrea sued the proprietor for his removal and assault, but the Massachusetts court upheld the actions of the theater, declaring that “the plaintiff’s attempts to enter were unwarranted, and the defendant rightfully used the force necessary to prevent his entry.”[9] In a similar case several years later, a judge ruled that a black man who refused to leave a theater when told by the management, “became a trespasser, and the defendant had the right to remove him by such a degree of force as his resistance should render necessary for that purpose.”[10]

Despite these early setbacks, following the Civil War, Boston’s black community organized and succeeded in pressing the state government for some of the nation’s first laws prohibiting public accommodation discrimination.[11] Yet these new statutes did not mean an end to the expulsion of black patrons by white business owners. In the 1880s, black Bostonians again faced business owners asserting their right to exclude; this time in the city’s newly-opened roller-skating rinks. In January 1885, the ticket agent of the Boston Roller Skating Rink denied entry to Richard Brown and his two young grandchildren. Brown rejected the agent’s declaration that the rink was private. “It is not private,” Brown argued, “you publically advertise it and call for the patronage of the public.”[12] When Brown refused to leave, several men grabbed him by the collar and he was “violently thrust out of the building” in front of his now crying grandchildren.[13]

Challenges to exclusion in places of public amusement are significant for the way they chart the boundaries of public accommodation. Opponents of anti-discrimination laws argued that individuals had no inherent right to access such seemingly frivolous spaces. A skating rink, they argued, was not an accommodation in the same way as a streetcar, hotel, or restaurant. Black advocates, however, argued that they held the right to access all places. “It is the principle that underlies the whole thing that we argue for,” one black activist argued to the Massachusetts legislature, “if a notice should be put up over the gates of hell that colored men would not be admitted, we would try to enter, because we have a right to.”[14] In response to these challenges, the legislature passed a new law further restricting the power of a business owner to deny service to patrons based on race.[15]

The Boston Roller Skating Rink enticed patrons with advertisements in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student publication, The Tech. The rink proprietors made clear the policy of refusing service “to any objectionable person”; a strategy used to prohibit African American skaters. “Boston Roller Skating Rink,” Tech, 2, no. 13 (March 21, 1883): 18.

Enforcement of the laws, however, continued to be sporadic and activists fought for decades to expand the types of business included in the scope of the law. Business’s also came up with new schemes to deny service and continued to enforce policies reserving the right to exclude or deny service to “any objectionable person.”[16] The echoes of these business practices are clear in today’s Philadelphia when police took Nelson and Robinson into custody outside of Starbucks.

While black activists in the Northeast were unable to end all racial discrimination, their success shows the power of organization and action to push back against racism and force the state to act. In our own time, in the aftermath of the removal of Nelson and Robinson from Starbucks, demonstrators and activists took to the streets and occupied the business to express their outrage. The two men at the center of the story are now in arbitration with Starbucks working for new policies prohibiting future incidents, including a customer “bill of rights.” “We need a different type of action … not words,” Robinson told a reporter. “It’s a time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.”[17] Taking inspiration from earlier generations of activists, present day opponents of racism continue to press both business owners and the state for the protection of the equal right to occupy and use any public accommodation. Like before, continued vigilance is necessary to secure free and equal access to urban public life for all people.


[1] Rachel Siegel, “’They can’t be here for us’: Black men arrested at Starbucks tell their story for the first time,” Washington Post, April 18, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/04/19/they-cant-be-here-for-us-black-men-arrested-at-starbucks-tell-their-story-for-the-first-time/?utm_term=.c5b77c8e8914.

[2] “’They can’t be here for us,'” accessed April 26, 2018.

[3] Michael Tanenbaum, “Protests over controversial arrests at Center City Starbucks; Police commissioner says officers did nothing wrong,” Philly Voice, April 14, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, http://www.phillyvoice.com/starbucks-arrest-philadelphia-center-city-police-investigating/.

[4] Samantha Melamed, “Starbucks arrests in Philadelphia: CEO Kevin Johnson promises unconscious-bias training for managers,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/pennsylvania/philadelphia/starbucks-ceo-kevin-johnson-philadelphia-arrests-black-men-20180416.html.

[5] Jenny Garthright and Emily Sullivan, “Starbucks, Police And Mayor Respond To Controversial Arrest Of 2 Black Men In Philly,” National Public Radio, April 14, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/14/602556973/starbucks-police-and-mayor-weigh-in-on-controversial-arrest-of-2-black-men-in-ph.

[6] Leslie Patrick, “African American and Civil Rights in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Spring 2010, accessed April 27, 2018, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/african-americans-civil-rights-pennsylvania.html.

[7] Millington Bergeson-Lockwood, “We Do Not Care Particularly About the Skating Rinks”: African American Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Amusement in Nineteenth Century Boston, Massachusetts,” Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 2 (June 2015): 254-288.

[8] “Plaintiffs Exceptions,” McCrea v. Marsh (September 1, 1857), Suffolk County Superior Court, Judicial Archives, Massachusetts Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.

[9] McCrea v. Marsh, 78 Mass. 211 (1858).

[10] Burton v. Scherpf, 83 Mass. 133 (1861).

[11] “An Act Forbidding Unjust Discrimination on Account of Color or Race,” 1865 Mass. Acts 277; “An Act in Relation to Public Places of Amusement,” 1866 Mass. Acts 252.

[12] “A Question of Civil Rights,” Boston Daily Globe, January 17, 1885.

[13] “Petition of Richard S. Brown with Thomas Russell and Others,” February 2, 1885, Docket Documents, Mayor and Board of Aldermen, City of Boston Archives, Boston, Mass.; “A Question of Civil Rights”; “Brown at the Skating Rink,” Boston Daily Globe, January 24, 1885; “Contending for the Right,” New York Freeman, January 31, 1885; “Costly Discrimination,” Boston Daily Globe, January 24, 1885; “The Color Line,” Boston Daily Globe, January 16, 1885.

[14] “Even in Tophet,” Boston Daily Globe, March 14, 1885; “The Color Line,” Boston Daily Advertiser, March 14, 1885.

[15] “An Act to Punish Persons Making Discrimination in Public Places on Account of Race or Color,” 1885 Mass. Acts 316.

[16] “Boston Roller Skating Rink,” Tech 2, no. 13 (March 21, 1883): 18.

[17] Associated Press, “Black men arrested at Philadelphia Starbucks feared for their lives,” The Guardian, April 19, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/19/starbucks-black-men-feared-for-lives-philadelphia.


Millington Bergeson-Lockwood

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood is a historian of African American history, race, law and politics. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2011. His book, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston was published with the University of North Carolina Press in 2018. His article “‘We Do Not Care Particularly About the Skating Rinks’: African Americans Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Massachusetts” was awarded the Richards Prize by the Journal of the Civil War Era for best article published in 2015.

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