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Monday, May 2, 2016

History: Not always a matter of Black & White

Friday, February 21, 2003

Russell Barnett stands next to an historic marking in the Lost Creek area north of East Glenn. The landmark commemorates the African Methodist Episcopal Church from the 1840s that was part of the Underground Railroad.

February is Black History Month. In part 2 of this three part series, a local man tells what it was like growing up black in the 1950s.

African American and Brazil native, Russell Barnett, was the youngest of six children born to Eva and Glenn Barnett. His mother died when Russ was 12-years-old. Even though his dad had worked in the coal mines as a very young child until it was made illegal for children to do so, Glenn "Buffy" Barnett supported his family as a cement contractor.

After attending Meridian Elementary and Brazil Jr. High, Russ left Brazil High School in 1960. The athletic football standout played with the Brazil Red Devils during their undefeated football season in 1958. He opted for a three-year stint in the Army instead of college after high school.

Because of Brazil's declining job market and limited social offerings, Russ moved to California after his military discharge. He soon discovered that the fast-paced living of the Golden State was not for this laid back Hoosier.

After a short sojourn in Illinois, Russ moved back to Brazil to help with his aging father. He intended to move on after his dad passed away but he stayed. Russ eventually married and raised his family in Brazil where he still resides.

The semi-retired coal miner now drives for Schwerman Trucking. He recently discussed what it was like for him growing up in Brazil during the 1950s.

"It wasn't bad in grade school," Russ said. "The only thing I really remember at that level was the teachers didn't want to touch me.

"As the kids entered the building in the morning and left in the evening," Russ continued, "a teacher was always at the door greeting the kids or saying good bye. She'd frequently, unconsciously pat the kids on the back or guide them along by placing her hand on their arm. The teachers didn't want to touch the black kids."

When Russ was about 9 or 10, he remembered one time getting a drink out of the water fountain that stood on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. It's still there today. It was a public fountain on city property and it actually worked then.

On this hot summer day that water tasted nice and cold to a little boy who'd been running through town and was heading home.

"Some old guy saw me," Russ said, "and yelled, 'Don't be drinking out of that fountain, boy.' Then he actually went into the police station and told the police. They just laughed and told me I could drink from the fountain anytime I wanted and not to pay attention to the old man. I was always taught to be respectful to adults, black or white, so I didn't say anything to the man but I knew he wouldn't have told a white boy not to drink from that fountain."

Russ recalled a time when he was about 11 or 12 and was in the Boy Scouts. They had an overnight camping trip. He and three white boys came late and the rest of the troop was already out in the woods.

It required two people to put up the pup tents. The white boys helped each other. No one would help Russ. When the troop returned the leader, Frank Davis, asked Russ why he didn't have his tent up. Russ explained that he had no one to help and the leader instantly assisted him.

"Later," Russ said, "Mr. Davis gave a little speech to the troop about helping one another and that he would not tolerate prejudice."

Russ played sports in high school. He said there was not as much prejudice in sports during a game but the black athletes were expected to excel. Period. And after the game a lot of the white players wanted nothing to do with the black kids.

"In school the prejudice was mostly in being ignored socially," Russ said. "I had some good friends who were white but most of my social life was with other blacks. There were just a few black kids so it got lonely at times and boring but you got used to it.

"I remember the farm kids who didn't come to Brazil to attend school until the ninth grade," Russ continued. "Most of those kids had never seen a black person. One day, I was walking down the hall with a couple guys and I noticed this boy, a freshman, from Ashboro or Bowling Green, somewhere south of town. He was just staring at me," Russ laughed. "My black skin captivated him so much he didn't notice a locker door standing open. The boy walked right into that locker door and cut his eyebrow. I think he had to have stitches. After about a month the farm kids got used to seeing blacks and we got along just fine."

Tomorrow: The black population in Clay County today and more of what it was like for Russ growing up black in the '50s.

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