Sunday, May 27 , 2018, 4:02 am | Fair 57º


Paul Burri: Remembering a Childhood Lesson in Prejudice

Parents become the target of hate-filled harassment from residents in a small town

My parents met while they were both attending beauty college in New York City. The year was 1925. They married soon after graduating and bought a modest house in Rutherford, N.J., a very small town just across the Hudson River from New York City.

Then they proudly opened their first beauty salon that they furnished with the most up-to-date equipment. They were extremely proud of their new business, and it did well. A few years later, I came along and it was the best of worlds.

One weekend when I was about 3 years old, my mom and dad invited a good friend of theirs who they had known in beauty school to visit them for the weekend. He was an Indian from Calcutta. He had a very dark complexion.

The weekend went well, and of course, they were proud to show their friend their salon.

Two days after their friend returned to New York, strange things began to happen. Coming to work one Monday morning, my dad found the keyhole of their shop stuffed with lead foil. He had to call a locksmith to get in that day. A few days later, a rear window to the shop was broken. Then there was a strange leak in the salon that no one could explain.

Then the notes began. They were all pretty much the same. Crudely scrawled — “We don’t like n*****s” and “N***** lovers in this town” — and taped to the windows of the salon. Soon the notes were being left at our little house a few blocks from the salon. The letters “KKK” were painted on our front lawn. One night a cross was burned in the front yard. And then the most chilling note of all — “The cops are on our side. They don’t like n*****s either.”

Obviously the Ku Klux Klan was alive and well as far north as New York City in 1933. My dad took the note to the local police station. They denied any connection and told him they would keep an eye out. The notes continued. The harassment continued.

The final straw came late one night when some people put a ladder against the house opposite my bedroom window. I was too little to know what was going on, but I remember a lot of commotion and how afraid and upset my mom and dad were.

A few months later, mom and dad sold the house at a huge loss, closed the salon and we moved to the Bronx in New York City, where they opened a new salon in a middle-class, religiously diverse neighborhood. That’s where I grew up with friends of different faiths, colors and ethnicities.

So the town of Rutherford, N.J., lost two solid, taxpaying citizens, and my parents lost their home, their business and their dream of a new life away from the big city. As for me, I grew up in an imperfect, culturally diverse, multiethnic community rather than one that was pure white and perfect. It was my loss, I guess.

What lesson did I learn from this? I’m not sure, except that I hate prejudice.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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