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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Black History Month: KKK causes Whites to change plans

Monday, February 16, 2004

Part two of four-part series

Clarence White, the piano tuner, was tall and thin and with his erect posture made quite an imposing figure. The friendly, respected music man with the soft southern accent was usually seen in his straw hat and seersucker pants with a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from his mouth.

After tuning a piano, which included most pianos in a seven county radius of Brazil, he would play a few songs for the neighbors. They'd congregate at the home where Clarence was tuning, knowing the self taught musician would provide a "concert" when his work was done.

Originally from the Louisville, Ky., area, Clarence married Lillian Olivia from Alabama, in the early 1920s. When a collapsed coal mine broke his back, Clarence took a job as a piano stringer, putting strings on new pianos so the store owner could tune and sell them.

He learned to tune from observing the owner. When the owner once missed a few days work due to illness, Clarence tuned several pianos in his absence. His tuning was better than the owners who advised Clarence he could make more money if he went into business for himself as a tuner.

He and Lillian decided to leave the deep South and head for California. Clarence played and tuned pianos in each town along the way to make enough money to continue. He tuned in schools, churches and theaters and played the piano in silent movie theaters. Their route was altered by the available work. That work took them through Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and up into Indiana.

Early in the journey, Clarence became aware that he was reaching only a small percentage of the possible business. In the 1920s, almost everyone had a piano. But as a black man, he could not gain access to homes, especially in the daytime when the man of the house would be away at work.

Always inventive, Clarence devised a plan. He hired a white front man who would go door-to-door, asking first if there was a piano and if it needed tuning. If so, the front man would reach an agreement about the cost for the tuning then would admit that he was not a piano tuner. He would point to Clarence, sitting in a Model T a few doors down the street and explain that he was the tuner.

The front man would point at a pistol tucked in his belt but hidden by his shirt. He'd tell the housewife she didn't have to worry because he would make sure that nothing untoward would happen while the black tuner was in her home.

The guise worked well and Clarence developed a reputation as a good, honest tuner in each town along their route. When they reached Vincennes, Indiana, business was exceptionally good, so Clarence and Lillian decided to quit traveling and they took up residence there. Lillian cleaned houses for several wealthy families. Clarence's fine reputation and his business continued to grow.

The Whites thought things were going well until suddenly one night they were jolted from their bed by blood- curdling sounds of gun shots and the bright flickering light of a fire on their lawn. The KKK was burning a large cross and screaming, "Get out of town, N------."

The next morning a woman that Lillian worked for explained that those people really didn't mean any harm. They were just concerned that Clarence's growing business was taking needed work away from a blind, white piano tuner. The cross-burning wasn't discrimination, the woman reasoned. The good town folks were just trying to protect a business.

She said she knew people in and around Brazil, Indiana, and she'd put in a good word with her friends and relatives there if the White's would leave Vincennes without delay.

The White's left Vincennes for Brazil the next day and found a booming town called the Clay Center of the World. Business was great and by 1936 they had saved enough to start living the American dream. They bought a large lot and house on North Columbia Street.

Lillian became known for her beautiful flower gardens and for her oil paintings of mountains, rivers and wildlife. She enticed one of her sisters to settle in Brazil.

Then another dream came true. Their son, Paul Edward, was born in 1941. The White's considered that to be a miracle because over the years, the they had seen eight prior pregnancies all end in still-births.

Tomorrow: Paul and his father

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