Patricia Fulford of Riverhead outside the Walmart store on Route 58. Photo; Denise Civiletti

One day after defending locking up African-American hair care products behind glass doors, Walmart apparently reversed course.

The retail giant today removed a glass barrier from the case in which the products are displayed in its Riverhead store.

Walmart did not respond to requests for comment today on its action.

Yesterday the company said the policy was data-driven. Some products require extra security, Walmart said in a statement.

“Those determinations are made on a store-by-store basis using data supporting the need for the heightened measures,” the company said. The company declined a request to share internal data it said supported its policy.

The product case in question at the Riverhead Walmart this afternoon. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Patricia Fulford, the Riverhead woman who complained to Walmart, the town and the NAACP about the locked case — and called on the local African-American community to boycott the store — was overjoyed when she learned today the doors had been removed.

“I’m so overwhelmed right now,” she said in a phone interview this afternoon. “I had a lot of support from people, but I got some backlash too.”

The vast majority of more than 120 Facebook comments on the RiverheadLOCAL post reporting the installation of the locked glass doors were critical of her complaint and argued that Walmart’s policy was based in economic necessity and not a result of racial profiling.

“Get over it, move on, keep it going, shop elsewhere… Ppl need to STOP being so sensitive.. Don’t make something out of nothing.. If Suave shampoo was locked up it being racist wouldn’t even come to mind…” wrote one woman.

“The Riverhead community should just accept the fact that we have thieves and it’s Walmart’s way of stopping it. Don’t take offense to it if you don’t steal, just ask for assistants [sic]…” wrote one man.

The comments stung, Fulford acknowledges. “But I knew I had to push on,” she said.

“I was fighting for everyone to have the same equal opportunity to shop at Walmart,” Fulford said. People should be able to buy shampoo and conditioner without having to wait for a manager to unlock a glass case.

Fulford stopped at Walmart to buy shampoo early on a Saturday morning two weeks ago and discovered the product she always buys was now in a locked glass case. She had to get an associate with a key to open the case and bring the item to the cashier. She was kept waiting for 10 minutes before an employee with a key arrived, she said.

The glass case, under a sign that read “Multicultural Hair Care,” contained an assortment of hair care products marketed to the African-American community. None was priced over $10. Similar products marketed to the white community were freely accessible on shelves in the same aisle.

Fulford took offense and started asking questions. She was told by a manager that the products under lock and key had been stolen more frequently and that’s why they had been locked away.

The Mattituck native refused to accept that explanation and complained to Walmart’s corporate office, posted about it on Facebook, then went to see town officials about it and complained to the NAACP. Fulford called for a “blackout” — a boycott to demonstrate the impact of the African-American community’s buying power.

Today Fulford, 54, said she felt vindicated.

Walmart, meanwhile, is the defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by three California women over the same issue — hair care products marketed to African-Americans locked in a glass case. Attorney Gloria Allred brought the action in January 2018. It is scheduled for trial next year.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.