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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

Racial prejudice sometimes made life uneasy for blacks

Friday, February 21, 2003

February is Black History Month. This series concludes with information about the black population in Clay County and Russ Barnett telling what it was like for him growing up Black in the 1950s.

Russ Barnett never had a professional haircut in Brazil when he was growing up. The white barbers wouldn't cut a black man's hair. The one black barber in town, Chester "Chuck" Bass, would not cut blacks' hair either -- during regular business hours. Bass's clientele was white men and it was made clear that if he cut black hair he would lose all of his white customers.

Glenn Barnett had a friend who was not a barber but knew how to cut hair so he gave haircuts to many of the blacks in town. After poor health prevented the man from continuing, Russ had to go to Terre Haute to get his hair cut until he left Brazil to join the Army. While Bass was well respected in the white community, he was not held in high regards by the blacks.

Racial prejudice was evident in local grocery and department stores and restaurants, Russ said. Many cashiers didn't like to wait on blacks and would make them wait until the whites were taken care of. The cashiers were frequently rude to black customers.

Russ recalled that once he and some black friends were eating in a local restaurant. When some white customers came in, the owner told the blacks to leave and gave their seats to the whites. On this occasion the whites refused and told the blacks to finish their meal.

When incidences like that occurred, Russ would talk to his dad or to other black adults to learn how to handle the situation. If a black lost his temper in a white establishment it could be dangerous for that person.

And blacks were prohibited from joining the service clubs. When asked how the American Legion could keep him out since he was a veteran, Russ said blacks weren't denied membership in the Legion but they were ostracized so they wouldn't want to join.

When asked about the Ku Klux Klan, Russ said it's still here but minimal. And he thinks prejudice continues but on a much smaller scale.

Russ explained why the black population in Brazil has fluctuated and decreased.

"A large number of blacks migrated to this area for a long time after the Civil War," Russ said, "because of the mining jobs, railroads and clay plants and it was a reasonably safe place to live. That information was passed on to the southern blacks looking for a place to go.

"But when the job market died out in Clay County, blacks stopped coming here," Russ explained. "And as the young people graduated they moved away looking for work and a better social life. So there are not many blacks left in Brazil."

According to the 2000 census records, there are 88 blacks living in Clay County. Of those, 52 reside in the city of Brazil. The Department of Education report of Nov. 7, 2002, lists 58 black students enrolled in the Clay Community School Corp.

Russ Barnett summarized his feelings about growing up and living in Brazil.

"America is a great place to live," he said. "I gave up three years of my life for it when I was in the military. And while there may be lots of places with more social life than Brazil, I wouldn't want to live any place else."

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