MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As the aroma of barbecue filled the air downtown, a cloud of controversy was apparently swirling over Memphis In May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Tom Lee Park.

One team claims that some team members were kicked out of the park, possibly because of their race.

Sir Gregory Thornton, a member of the Game of Bones Barbecue team, said it all started because of chairs being too far out from their tent.

“Six sheriff’s officers pulled up and said our tent was called to be closed for the night, and we had ten minutes to clean up and leave our tent,” he said.

Thornton said he and his team members did as instructed and didn’t argue.

“A lieutenant part of the sheriff’s, approached me and a friend of mine, and we were the two Black men present and said, ‘Everyone with a team shirt on has been asked to leave the park,'” he said.

He said two dozen other team members, who happened to be white, were allowed to stay in the park.

“As I was walking, I realize I’m walking past my white teammates with team shirts on and you’re not saying anything to him. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have on a team shirt, but I was still asked to leave,” Thornton said.

Some members of the Game of Bones took to social media posts to complain. One wrote, “The sheriff’s department then escorted three of our team members out of the park, only our black members, with racial overtones. You all know us, we’re Memphis people through and through, business owners, Memphis lovers, so if sounds like (expletive) to you too, please join us in calling them out.”

Thornton says he’s not seeking fame but does want answers from both the sheriff’s office and Memphis in May about why they ruined what would have been a great barbecue fest experience.

“If this wasn’t about race then why were the two Black men asked to leave when 25 of the white people standing in the same place were allowed to stay and weren’t even spoken to?” Thornton said. “I felt unwelcome and with me being from Memphis, I know this is not what the City of Memphis wants to be about. So, for Memphis in May to continue I think you do need to consider and evaluate why out of 25 people two black men were escorted out without just cause.”

WREG reached out to Memphis in May for comment Monday. They said the decision had nothing to do with race and the team was asked to vacate the space due to repeated rule violations. Read their full statement below:

“For safety reasons, it was critical to establish and maintain an unobstructed continuous pathway along Riverside Drive in Tom Lee Park during the WCBCC this year. Teams that were positioned on Riverside Drive were informed of the requirements in advance and asked to modify their external footprint and activity to preserve the pathway.

Unfortunately, one team was asked to vacate their space for one evening due to repeated rule violations related to this safety issue. The decision to ask the team to vacate for the evening was purely the result of rule violations after repeated warnings and had nothing to do with individual team members or race. The team was allowed to return the next morning, host guests, and compete in the competition.

Overall event safety is the top priority for all MIM events and unobstructed access for first responders, emergency vehicles and possible evacuations is a critical element of the site design. All teams agree to follow the rules and regulations to participate in the contest.” 

Memphis in May International Festival

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office said through a spokeman that they made no arrests during the event, and directed questions about their assisance at Barbecue Fest to Memphis in May officials.