Prejudice in the north

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Robert Wickware, at his home in Indianapolis, shows the bike he used to ride to Terre Haute every day when he attended Indiana State University in the early 1970s.

Having a college education can change a person's life. Robert Wickware wanted a different life, a better life. The flickering desire for a college degree burned gently within him for years then exploded into need after realizing that his very life would smolder without it. His hunger for that education was so great that he rode a bicycle from Brazil, to Terre Haute, a 50-mile round trip, every day for nearly two years, to achieve his goal. The young man had many obstacles between him and his goal. Being black was one.

The fifth of seven children, not including a baby who died at age one, raised by Jay and Leona Wickware, Robert learned quickly that money was scarce. It took all of the Wickware's money just to pay bills and put food on the table.

Jay worked steadily while Robert was growing up in the late '50s and mid '60s on north Drexel Street. But the pay at the old Hydraulic brick plant, which became Arketex, wasn't enough to meet all of the needs of the large family.

Leona had to work, too, and made a dollar a day cleaning two homes in town. She cleaned four hours a day for 50 cents at each house. Her income bought food, Jay's paid the rest of the bills.

Everyone has roadblocks impeding their journey through life. Poverty is a common rock in the road for whites as well as blacks. But poverty coupled with being black could turn a rock into a boulder.

There was much racial turmoil in the country in the 50s and 60s. Many African Americans rose up against the second class citizenship they felt was accorded to them in many parts of the nation. National attention was given to the blacks' resistance to segregation and discrimination. Most of that attention was focused on the southern states. But being black in a small midwestern, northern town presented problems, too. Problems that most whites didn't face, comprehend or acknowledge.

"Brazil is my home," Robert said. "I don't regret growing up here. I come back often to visit with my family, and friends. I still have some good friends here, black and white. But Brazil is a lot different now than it used to be. The people are a lot nicer."

While visiting with his mother recently, Robert, 57, talked about events, attitudes and people from his youth. Some were intricately involved in molding him, partly creating the frustration and anger that ignited the fire of yearning for a college education as a means for a better way of life. Some were instrumental in helping him achieve that goal.

"There were still restaurants in Brazil that wouldn't serve black people in the early '60s," Robert said. "The old M&M Restaurant wouldn't. One time my mother and a friend had been working with Rev. Buckner, our minister at the 2nd Baptist Church. He was blind.

"They were hungry so they walked down to the M&M Restaurant on National Avenue. They were told they could not be served there. My mother explained that Rev. Buckner was blind and he was hungry and she asked if they would at least get him something to eat. The answer was still no. Mother and her friend pursued. Finally they were told they could get a sandwich for the preacher if they picked it up at the back door."

Robert said he thought the other restaurants let blacks eat in their shops but they had to wait until all of the white people were served.

The old Brazil Junior and Senior High Schools had no cafeterias. Most of the students descended upon the few restaurants in town for lunch. It was hectic for students and business workers alike. Time was always a real concern.

Robert said he remembers eating a hamburger up town a few times while he was in high school. But since money and time were always scarce, he usually walked home for lunch.

School problems for Robert began in elementary, however. He attended Alabama Street Elementary School for grades 1-4. Fifth grade was at Meridian Street School. And he spent the 6th grade in the brand new East Side School. Attending different schools was apparently due to the impending consolidation. The Wickwares did not move.

Robert walked to all of those schools. He does not remember ever knowing of a black child riding a school bus to any school in Brazil when he was growing up.

"Buses went by my house but I was never allowed to ride. Maybe we lived out of the bus district. But it seemed every black kid lived out of the bus district while a white neighbor kid got to ride the bus."

Tomorrow: Teachers have a big impact on Robert, good and bad.

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