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Bill and Sam

Bill and Sam
By Mark Howard


Not so many years ago, in a small town in North Carolina, a man named Bill Poole, who was one of my mother's cousins, and a man named Sam Thomas became friends.

Bill had grown up there in Thomasville, served on the police force, had a family, worked as a personnel manager in a business and was a city councilman for four terms. Sam had retired from the federal government in Virginia before taking mortuary science training and becoming a funeral director. He had chosen to settle in Thomasville after seeing the town's name on a road sign as he drove along Interstate 85. As a Thomas, he liked the idea of living in Thomasville. Nearly 76, he still does business in a big, rambling converted house a block off Main Street and still serves on the housing authority.

I never met Bill — didn't know he existed until my mother sent me his obituary from the local paper in 1995. He was 57. Sam told me about him when I went to see him two years after Bill died. I occasionally record oral history with family members, and a detail in Bill's obituary had piqued my curiosity about his friendship with Sam. It had to do with race — what it meant during the course of their friendship and what it didn't mean. Sam is black, and Bill was white.

When I went to see him, Sam was open, kind and gracious, quick-witted, a little frail. His hands shook. Parkinson's disease, he explained. Sam told me that after he first moved to town, Bill, then a city councilman, had come by the funeral home to introduce himself. Bill considered Sam, who had no family in the area, "an orphan like him." Over time, the visits and conversations piled up and took on the weight that makes people see themselves as friends.

I don't know how Bill felt generally about race. Growing up poor in small-town America before 1950, it's pretty safe to assume what kind of attitudes he grew up among. Whatever he thought generally, he thought enough of Sam to sponsor his entrance into the town's Lion's Club in 1983. Sam was the first black businessman to join the club. Sam heard some people threatened to quit when he joined but says "they found out I worked and saw that I was human and sort of accepted me as a person." Sam later got Bill to rejoin the club and drove him to meetings after Bill, hurt in a car wreck, couldn't drive.

Then Bill found out he had cancer and was going to die, and he asked Sam to handle his funeral arrangements.

If you're under 30, it may be hard to grasp how unusual a request this was — and still is, particularly in the South. The most segregated place and time in America to this day is Sunday morning in church. Funeral homes, as a secular extension of houses of worship, are just as segregated. Sam was surprised enough that he asked Bill if he wanted him to use the same caskets and other equipment he used for his black customers.

Suffice it to say that white people have not routinely chosen to be buried by black funeral directors. Ask a white person and a black person why that's so and whether it reflects racism, and you're likely to get different answers. Racism's like that.

In any event, cancer killed Bill, and Sam handled the funeral.

Sam says it was the biggest funeral he's ever done — "flowers galore." White Thomasville turned out in force. The mayor spoke. Sam made a big cross of white carnations for his friend. He said a few elderly white women with whom he otherwise had no social contact approached him at the close of the service to compliment him. They hugged him — "right in front of their husbands," Sam said. "There are times when people sort of forget about color. After they got home and thought about it, I don't know what happened," he laughed.

Some white people I have spoken with about the funeral seem to wrestle with a combination of discomfort at Bill's violation of social taboo and a vague, quiet pride at taking part in an event that carried the scent of different possibilities. Much went unsaid. The closest thing I got to a real insight came from an aunt who observed, "You know, we all feel we aren't prejudiced, but maybe Bill really wasn't."

Maybe. Well-meaning white people tend to see the absence of prejudice as the ability to be "colorblind," to "look beyond color." Which is racist, of course, since it assumes that the color itself is inherently inferior; whites tend to feel they must confer humanity on non-whites before dealing with them as people. Bill may have viewed himself as "colorblind." The tantalizing possibility, however, is that Bill was able not to ignore Sam's color, but to see it — as just one of many facts about Sam that had to be explored in the course of getting to know a fellow human being.

There's a footnote to the story that testifies to the power of racism. Sam told me that Bill had asked him to his church and to his home several times. But he told me that he had never accepted the invitations. I asked him why. "I know that there are people who say negative things about other folk, and I didn't want to be in the situation of causing him any kind of pain. He was a sincere individual."

The lost opportunities still weighed on him. Before I left, Sam told me that he went out to Bill's grave every now and then. To visit. He said he talked with him.

"What do you tell him?" I asked.

"I tell him I feel guilty for not going with him to his church," he said. "It sounds funny, but these things happen."

I'm telling this story because a group in which I have been privileged to take part, Leadership Florida, is conducting a project this year called Faces of Florida to help Floridians recognize and respect our state's diversity. A survey commissioned by Leadership Florida found that more than two-thirds of those who responded think white Floridians have a high-medium degree of prejudice toward black Floridians. Nearly three-fourths think black Floridians have a high-medium degree of prejudice toward white Floridians. Only 14% of respondents, however, think they personally have a high-medium degree of prejudice toward other races.

This, of course, is a statistical portrait of denial — "yes, there's a horrible problem with prejudice, just not with me." And of guilt: The belief by a largely white population that blacks are more prejudiced than whites says little about how blacks feel; it says volumes about the majority's belief that the minority is angry.

I offer Bill and Sam's story not because they really changed much. But there's courage in their story, a willingness to act differently and to find strength there. Maybe that's as much a lesson as they can offer us — and maybe as much as we need to start seeing ourselves as we really are.

Sam says he's "still going strong" — and on the day in June that I called to tell him I'd written this, he had visited Bill's grave.

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