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Obama visit has special meaning to some in Arcadia

ARCADIA — William Burton is dead three decades now and his barbershop by the railroad tracks here is shuttered, but the old men still come every day, sunup to sundown, to the place they got their first haircuts. They sit out front and drop checkers or flip cards, at tables propped on milk crates, until their wives come calling or the mosquitoes chase them home.

Tuesday was different.

The president of the United States was coming to Arcadia, population 6,604.

He was the first sitting president to visit. And he was black.

"There was a time when blacks weren't allowed to cross Highway 70 after dark," said William Lattimore, 73, playing Coon Can on the porch a few hours before the president's arrival. "There were places you just couldn't go."

As a boy, Roosevelt Isaac hated when his mother sent him to the Arcadia Drug Store. He'd stop on the black side of the highway and stack a pile of stones, for when he got chased back across.

"I got pretty good at throwing rocks," he said.

The county rodeo brought out the worst in the small town, the men said.

"When they'd have the rodeo down there, you'd get roped and put in a little jail," Isaac said. "And you'd better go along with it."

Arcadia's cruel side has drawn America's attention. In the 1980s, the DeSoto County School Board barred three white boys from attending school because they had contracted the AIDS virus through blood transfusions. Their parents sued and won, but anonymous callers threatened to bomb the school and the family became the focus of protests by gay rights groups and the Ku Klux Klan.

Then someone set fire to the family's house. The arsonist disappeared. The family moved. Even Ronald Reagan booed the town.

A few years later, in 1989, a judge freed an illiterate black fruit picker who had been wrongfully imprisoned for 21 years on charges he had poisoned his own kids. National news trucks circled the courthouse. Many Arcadians cheered, but one white man, still arguing the man was guilty, told a reporter, "Somebody ought to take a 30.06 and blow his head off!"

It's still hard for a black man to go into a bank and come out with his pockets full, the men say, but it's better now.

Lattimore works as a school crossing guard and gets a daily dose of how things have changed.

"The younger generation mingle real good," he said. "It's progress, and it's going to get better."

The men sitting around the barbershop, the same men who couldn't show their face at Wheeler's cafe, eat breakfast there whenever they want now.

A few doors down, at DeSoto County's oldest black-owned business, Verlene Hickson was getting dressed in hopes of crossing State Road 70 and getting lucky.

"They used to say about Jesus, 'If I could only touch his garments,' " she said. "That's what I'm feeling. If I could just get a glimpse of him, I'd be filled."

Her husband, Eugene Hickson Sr., was elected Arcadia's first black mayor in the late '70s, and he demanded that the city start hiring minorities.

"They said — whites and blacks both — said it was time for a change," said Hickson, 79. He was elected to the City Council six times.

The priest at the Episcopal church once told him the entire congregation was praying for him by name.

Hickson said he's proud to have been one of many, in small towns across the country, who may have paved the way for President Barack Obama.

Still, Arcadia didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for the first black president. A sign on the door of the chamber said: "The DeSoto County Chamber of Commerce has received no information about the impending visit from President Obama. We are unaware of where, or when it will transpire."

"It has been kept kind of low key," said Buddy Mansfield, a county commissioner. Nevertheless, "I think it's an historic event," he said. "Whether you like someone or not, you respect his position."

When the choppers sliced the sky over Arcadia, over watermelon farms and orange groves and cattle fields, there were no schoolkids waving flags on Oak Street or high school marching bands playing Hail To The Chief on Orange. Along the motorcade route, a few locals gathered beside a big bunch of protesters from somewhere else, some wearing 912 T-shirts and carrying signs that said ATLAS WILL SHRUG and STOP SPENDING.

And at a little boarded-up barbershop across the tracks, old men were smiling.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Obama visit has special meaning to some in Arcadia 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 12:55am]

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