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Race relations at the crossroads

Blacks in the North Florida town of Perry say some local businesses still practice segregation.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


PERRY -- The sign on the fence said the hotel pool closed at 10 p.m.

photoBut it was just past 8:30 p.m. when Janay Flowers joined relatives in the pool at the Villager Lodge. What happened next shocked family members and ruined their July 4th weekend two years ago.

"The owner came out and started pouring bleach in the pool," recalled Janay, 13.

Janay's mother, Jeanette Flowers, filed complaints with state regulators. But nothing could be proved, and the hotel owner denied any wrongdoing.

"Maybe he saw too many black people in the pool," Flowers said.

At the crossroads of three major highways, the small town of Perry, best known for the Buckeye Cellulose mill and the polluted Fenholloway River, once again is attracting attention over claims of racism. This time, a visiting Maryland lawmaker complained that he was refused service at a bar because he is black.

Perry Package and Lounge is facing state and federal investigations, and lawmaker Talmadge Branch is considering legal action after being told Feb. 3 to go to a back room if he wanted a drink.

"I want to call it a wake-up call," said Gerald Walker, president of the Taylor County NAACP. "A lot of people, both black and white, seem to think racism is gone. But now it just reared it's ugly head."

Like many southern towns, Perry was segregated until the mid 1960s. Although much of that presumably was swept away with the civil rights movement, members of Perry's African-American community interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times say racism is still rampant.

At least three bars or businesses either won't serve them or require them to sit apart from the white customers, they say.

Deal's Oyster House

To black residents, Deal's Oyster House is off-limits. It might as well be the law.

They talk about the one-way mirror used to screen customers, and the buzzer that opens the door for those allowed to enter.

Business owner Rachel Deal said these are misconceptions that are difficult to overcome.

On Thursday afternoon, a white Times reporter was buzzed in.

Deal, smoking a cigarette, shook her head at several questions.

"Yesterday I had a woman call me and ask, "Do you serve black people?' Yes, we serve black people," said Deal, who opened the oyster house 36 years ago with her husband, Roy, who died in 1992.

Why the buzzer on the door? A quarter-century ago, Deal said, two men in the community were abducted and murdered. Deal's husband joined the manhunt in Georgia. "When he came back he said, "We are going to lock that door,"' Deal said.

Now, says assistant manager Thomas Gable, it's a gimmick, something they keep to amuse customers. The door no longer is locked, he said.

Yet Deal and Gable acknowledge their restaurant's reputation for being unfriendly to blacks.

"I have to show you something," Gable says and disappears in a back room. He returns carrying a framed document bearing the Alabama state seal. It is signed by former Gov. George Wallace, and it bestows upon Roy Deal the title Honorary Lt. Colonel Aide-de-Camp in the Alabama State Militia.

"Now I wouldn't say that Mr. Deal was a prejudiced man, but he was very good friends with George Wallace," Gable said. Wallace gained fame for declaring in 1963: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!".

"They used to box together when they were growing up," Deal said. But times have changed, and Deal asked the Times to let black Perry residents know she will welcome them in her restaurant.

"They may not feel comfortable here because they see the trucks with the gun racks out front," Deal said. "But they can come here."

Perry Package and Lounge

Lang Oglesby recalls walking into Perry Package about four years ago and entering through the lounge door. The 46-year-old was new to the area and didn't know he was supposed to use the side door or the back door, Oglesby said.

"They said "The blacks go in the back.' That was the last time I was back there."

Nathan Gray said he went to Perry Package about a year ago with two friends. Like Oglesby, Gray said, the three young men walked into the lounge.

That's when the bartender started yelling that he should know better than to walk through that door, Gray said.

"She kept saying, "It's not my policy. You know the other people don't like it,"' Gray said he realized "other people" meant the white customers.

Gray said he demanded his money back for the bottle of Bacardi he bought and he never returned.

"I felt like if I'm not welcome here, I don't think I ought to spend my money here."

Black customers, indeed, were sent to the back, said Brenda Jackson, who has cleaned Perry Package for owner David Holton for about four years.

"They didn't allow black people in the front," Jackson said last week. The same goes for check cashing, she said. "They won't cash a white person's check in the back and they won't cash a black person's check in the front."

Bob's 27 Bar

Bob Ellison, who owns Bob's 27 Bar, knows he doesn't get many black customers and blames it on some of the white customers. But keeping the peace in the places where whites and blacks mix isn't always easy, he said.

"You've got to be very diplomatic," Ellison said.

Bob's 27 Bar is another Perry business that black residents told the Times they patronize at their own risk.

Ellison said he and his wife, Leigha, at times have warned black customers to avoid potentially troublesome patrons. Those white customers are warned that if there's trouble, they will get booted first, Leigha Ellison said. Still, Leigha Ellison said that street goes both ways. She has kicked black customers out for mistreating her bartenders.

"Some of the people in this black community are just disrespectful to anyone but their own race and color."

Questions remain

Lots of people are looking into Perry these days.

Investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have wrapped up their investigation, having found "a possible violation of the law." They've turned their findings over to State Attorney Jerry Blair.

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth has opened his own investigation, as has U.S. Attorney Mike Patterson.

Greg Parker, attorney for Perry Package and Lounge owner David Holton, says that his client practices diplomacy and that it may be the root of some of the misunderstandings.

Parker said Holton, who has worked at the bar for nearly 30 years, has warned some black customers from going to the lounge area when there was a "rowdy crowd" inside.

"He has suggested to a black patron in the past that they may not want to go in there -- just out of concern for their safety," Parker said. "And he's done that for his white customers, too."

Parker has described Holton as "heartsick" over the events and added he does not condone discrimination of any kind. But if things were that bad in Holton's bar or any other, Parker said, he thinks the black community would have taken action.

Walker, the NAACP president, said all the calls he has received since Branch's experience are turning into a membership drive.

Whether blacks are welcome in a Perry business depends on the temperament of the regular white customers there, said Clarence Jackson, an Army veteran who did three tours in Vietnam.

Jackson, who is black, said he is not necessarily accusing management of discrimination; he's saying black customers might endure stares or slurs from some of the white customers.

"It's old school," Jackson, 60, said. And blacks know to avoid those places.

Can government help this all this? Terry Griffin, a 37-year-old corrections institute worker, doesn't think so.

"It's a waste of taxpayer money," said Griffin, who is black. "People don't change."

Recent coverage

Perry bar faces more scrutiny after complaint (February 15, 2001)

Visiting lawmaker: Bar in Perry drew color line (February 6, 2001)

Bill would ban racial profiling (February 12, 2001)

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