VIPRoom2

The VIP Room in Washington. (Courtesy Photo)

The VIP Room in Washington has stood as a staple of African-American pride for decades.  The family-owned social hall, founded in 1978 by Earline and Sam Sampson, has provided a venue for neighborhood and church functions, national gatherings and musical performances that have welcomed DC notables, such as media mogul Cathy Hughes. As unofficial stewards of the Brightwood community, the Sampson family poured hard work and tenacity into their success by supporting local interests and rarely taking time off.

However, Sampson’s eldest son, Bo, who took over management of the hall following his father’s passing in 2011, said he believes all of his family’s hard work has been tapped for destruction through recent attempts by a handful of new, mostly White residents to shutter the business.

“We’ve been here for years with absolutely no problems—no law enforcement issues, no licensing infractions, no ordinance abuses or violations of any sort either inside or around our business—but suddenly, we are being denied a liquor license because the new residents are reporting people urinating outside the building and loitering,” he said. Bo’s siblings, Gary, Mike and Yolanda, also work with him to continue their parents’ legacy.

Previously, temporary day/event licenses were issued through D.C.’s Office of Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) to the VIP Room for alcohol consumption for $300 per license.  With the popularity of the venue, Sampson was advised to apply for a tavern license, which would offer an annual renewable liquor license and streamline the cost. It was during this new application process, Sampson said, that new residents began an aggressive campaign to label the business a nuisance.

A one-page flyer announcing a July 28 Advisory Neighborhood Committee (ANC) meeting circulated through the neighborhood and claimed a Class C Tavern Liquor License offered to the VIP Room would “invite late-night noise, increased inappropriate (even illegal) behavior, unwelcome liquor and beer-bottle litter and plenty of congestion.” Ronald Austin, ANC 4B06 chair, said that new residents told him on more than one occasion that they simply did not want the VIP Room to have a liquor license at all.

“The VIP Room has operated for 40 years at its present location. It is applying for a liquor license only so that it can stop applying for temporary one-day licenses every time an event is staged at the premises.  There were no complaints from the surrounding neighborhood until it filed its application for the regular liquor license.  Only then, did its operation become an issue for a small minority of residents in the neighborhood,” Austin said.

The protest group, according to Austin, only included 11 people, although 35 spoke in opposition to the licensing at the July 28 hearing. Despite asking that the Commission’s ruling that the VIP Room secure a license on Oct. 15, the beverage administration denied the license based on its close proximity to the National Children’s Center, a facility serving children with various disabilities. Sampson said the “center” was only recently categorized as such and the facility is used primarily for administrative tasks.

Sampson is among a growing group of Black business owners who claim gentrification in the region is being led by patronizing and prejudice White newcomers with a particular distaste for community-based, African-Americans businesses.  The new supplants’ participation in local zoning and neighborhood advisory boards has helped paint Black businesses they want removed as static, underdeveloped neighborhood nuisances, or as a potential danger to neighbors.

“We are prepared to fight for the livelihood of our businesses because we didn’t suddenly become a hindrance to the neighborhood.  The VIP Room and loads of other Black businesses have supported our communities’ schools, churches, elders, and been an extended family for them,” Sampson said.  “It is barbaric to lie and attempt to destroy a family’s legacy because it doesn’t fit into your definition of viable.”

No calls for comments from Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser or ABRA had been returned at press time.