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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dealing with discrimination

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

- Part three in a Black History Month report

From the outside, Paul White seemed to have it all. An only child, he was spoiled by parents who doted on him. When Paul was little, his father built him a pedal car and even an airplane that would "fly" high over the lily pool and garden in their backyard. It moved on a cable suspended from the roof of the house to an oak tee about 50 yards away.

Six cousins lived nearby who were almost like brothers and sisters. The Whites loved to travel. They spent hard earned money on long car trips and Paul had traveled with his parents to 40 of the 48 continental states before he graduated from Brazil High School in 1959.

During high school, Paul excelled and was popular. His grades always put him at or near the top of his class. An excellent athlete, he was co-captain of Brazil's undefeated football and track teams in 1957. He was named All-Western Indiana Conference Halfback and received the first annual Grant L. Hughes award for mental attitude. He set a school record in the broad jump and played trombone in Brazil's school band and concert orchestra.

To the rest of the world, Paul's life looked nearly perfect. But nothing is. He was a good person, a good student, athlete, musician. In spite of all of his accomplishments, in the eyes of many, he was first and foremost, black.

While he was growing up he was subjected to the same prejudices that other blacks faced in most places at that time in the country's history. The name calling hurt. The segregation was devastating.

Paul remembers his childhood was like living in two irreconcilable worlds. He and his family were treated with respect and admiration for their accomplishments and successes, and opportunities were abundant for them. But, at the same time, the Whites could not eat in Brazil's restaurants. They could not drink a Coke in the drug store soda fountains. And Paul could not use the tennis courts, golf course or swimming pool at Forest Park until late in his childhood.

Paul remembers going to school at Meridian Street one day with a swollen jaw from an abscessed tooth. When the teacher asked why he hadn't gone to the dentist, he explained that doctors and dentists in Brazil did not treat blacks. The teacher called a prominent dentist and angrily cajoled him into seeing Paul.

When school let out, the teacher escorted Paul to the office and left him there. A tooth was pulled. Later it was discovered that the dentist pulled the wrong tooth. The tooth healed, but the emotional scars remained.

As with most boys, Paul's biggest hero was his father. He loved and admired him very much. As Paul grew to be a young man he worked with his father in the summers and started noticing his dad's mannerisms in dealing with the public.

When Clarence spoke with anyone he always said "Yes sir. No sir." Or "Yes ma'am. No ma'am." And before he smoked, he always asked for permission. That's when it was acceptable for men to smoke and requesting permission was not considered necessary.

Trying to establish his own sense of identity and manhood, Paul thought that his father's politeness was a relic of past Uncle Tom times.

"As a modern young man who thought he knew everything about the world," Paul said, "one day I confronted my father. 'Amos and Andy are dead, Dad,'" I told him. "'Get out of the slave days. Come into the modern world by simply saying yes and no, like everyone else. I'm embarrassed every time you use those slavery day words.'"

Clarence answered all of Paul's concerns with deeply held old-fashioned values. He said that a man should be judged by who he is and what he does. That means he must be courteous and respectful of everyone. He must do every job, big or small, with the best effort possible. And he must let pride in workmanship rather than profit be the motive for his work.

Those answers didn't mean much to Paul then. The love never faltered but a barrier was being formed between father and son eroding the communication between the two and the respect the younger held for the elder.

"There are very few times in life when you absolutely know that at a certain moment, your life completely changes," Paul said. "For me one of those moments happened when we went to Kentucky to visit my dad's family and I happened to overhear a conversation about my dad as a young man."

Tomorrow: The story that changed Paul's life.

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