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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Prejudice in the north (part 2 of 3)

Monday, February 9, 2004

Robert Wickware had a hard time while growing up. The little boy didn't understand why he and his black friends were treated differently than the white kids. The more he was mistreated because of the color of his skin, the more his frustration and anger grew.

Sometimes seemingly little things could have such a great impact.

"One teacher at Alabama Street Elementary School taught race by how she lined us up," Robert said. "She always lined us up according to color with the lightest kids first. The real light white kids were always at the front. The darker skinned white kids were in the middle and the black kids were always last.

"Another teacher at Alabama School used to read to the class," Robert continued. "She had the book, Little Black Sambo. She'd hold up the book and look at me and the three other black kids in the room and say, 'We can read this book if Bobby and the other colored kids don't mind'.

"We were in first or second grade, six or seven years old. If we objected, the rest of the class would get mad at us. It was degrading but you don't say anything. You just sit there and take it. We'd listen to the story and act like we didn't care."

Little Black Sambo is a story written in 1899 by Helen Bannerman. It's about a little African boy in India who outwits some tigers who threaten to eat him. The tigers turn into butter and Little Black Sambo's mother uses it to make pancakes for their supper. The controversial story, which has been revamped and is still popular, is considered racist and derogatory by most blacks.

Robert's mother, Leona Wickware, was asked how she handled the persecution against her children when they came home from school, upset, and told her what had happened.

"I prayed," she said. "Every morning before we ate our breakfast I got down on my knees and prayed. And every night before I went to bed I got on my knees and prayed. That's how I was raised. That's all I knew to do. But I always told my kids to treat everybody right. I told them, no matter how people treat you, you just treat everybody right."

Fortunately not all of Robert's teachers were like the two at Alabama Street. One special teacher was instrumental in the selection and accomplishment of some of his life choices. Arlene Liechty (now Meyers) taught at the Brazil Jr. High School.

"Ms. Liechty was the main reason I had the ability to go to college," Robert recalled."

He had trouble making good grades in school. Liechty thought it was due to lack of application rather than ability. She told young Robert she would not allow him to pass until he had learned what she was teaching in her class.

It was not a threat to Robert, however. More of a promise. Liechty stayed after school and worked with him.

"At that time I was passing but just barely, and she said the grades had to improve." Robert said. "She told me I could do it if I really wanted to. I could tell she believed it. That started a desire and a drive in me.

"And she didn't just preach. She worked with me. Ms. Liechty never stopped telling me I could do it. She never let me quit trying. I worked hard. In my senior year, for the last six weeks, I made the honor roll.

"Ms. Liechty was why I was able to go to college. She was the only reason I was able to make it through high school and college scholastically."

A social life could be difficult for blacks when Robert was a teen.

"There just weren't very many black kids for other blacks to socialize with in Brazil," Robert said. "You could be friends with white kids at school but then they may not acknowledge that they even knew you once you left the building.

"Not everyone was like that, fortunately. I still have some good friends that I keep in touch with routinely. Chief Dep. Larry Pierce, David Stark, Bob Eaton. Larry and I went all the way through school together from the 1st through the 12th grade. We still e-mail each other frequently.

"There was one person who was really special to me," Robert continued suddenly solemn. "I had a friend in Staunton. Larry Mitchell. We were best of friends. He came to my house quite a bit. Larry didn't see color. He helped me quite a bit with some of the problems I had in Brazil. He showed me that everybody there was not prejudiced.

"Unfortunately, Larry died when he was just 21. He was lifting weights at his parents home in Staunton and had a cerebral hemorrhage. I was a pall bearer at his funeral," Robert reflected sadly.

Tomorrow: Robert finds a way to go to college.

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