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Race allegations arise again in North Florida town

At the crossroads of three major highways, this small North Florida town has spent two weary years erasing the stain left by allegations of racism.

It's not done yet.

A South Florida man has complained to Attorney General Charlie Crist that he was kicked out of a motel swimming pool in July because "coloreds are not allowed in the pool." Crist has begun an investigation, he announced Thursday.

The owner of the Southern Inn said he merely told Dwayne Parker the pool was reserved for registered guests. He said he is shocked by the allegation.

"I don't discriminate against anyone," said Raj Patel, who immigrated to the United States from his native India in 1989 and displays four American flags in his lobby.

Patel's words echo those of the former owner of the Perry Package store, who lost his liquor license after a black man, who happened to be a Maryland lawmaker, complained he was denied service in 2001.

Although Parker was a registered guest, the children swimming with him and their parents were not, Patel said. With no lifeguard on duty, Patel said, he can't risk letting local kids swim in the pool. "I told them nicely and they left the pool," Patel said.

Crist isn't so sure. "I decided it was time to issue the subpoena and find out what was going on," he said.

The attorney general is using a new civil rights law he sought and lawmakers passed this year. Several witnesses say they heard the racial slur, according to subpoenas issued in the case.

Reached at his home in West Palm Beach, Parker declined comment.

Perry (pop. 6,847) is 55 percent white, 41 percent black. Home to the Buckeye Cellulose mill and the polluted Fenholloway River, the town is still dealing with the aftershocks of the 2001 incident involving Maryland lawmaker Talmadge Branch.

Branch stopped for a drink at the Perry Package Store on his way to a political meeting in Tallahassee and said he was told he could not sit at the bar. The bartender told him to take his drink to a back room, Branch said.

"It's one thing to read about it happening in the '60s or the '50s, and it's another to actually live it," Branch said at the time.

That case sparked civil and criminal investigations, as well as intense interest by the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which set up shop in Perry and used the $15,000 fine the state charged the bar to set up race education workshops that lasted almost two years.

Roy Kaplan, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice in Tampa Bay, helped organize the workshops and committees that sprang from them. Although he thinks much was accomplished during the two-year run, he said much remains to be done.

"You don't just get someone to come in for a one-time deal and then you are vaccinated against prejudice," Kaplan said. "You have to keep reinvigorating it."

His hope, and that of the Commission on Human Relations, was to use the Perry experiment as a model for other communities. He's sorry to hear that another accusation has been made, but said it doesn't mean the workshops failed. "It was difficult to get them to coalesce into one kind of a group," Kaplan said.

Greg Parker, a lawyer who served on the Perry race relations committee and represented the owner of the Perry Package, said things have improved.

"It's been very successful," said Parker, no relation to Dwayne Parker. "I think it helped soothe the tension, which a lot of people thought came from outside."

The negative attention the town received in 2001 made it "an easy whipping post" for future complaints, Greg Parker said. Just because an allegation is made in Perry doesn't make it true, he added.

Wayne Dunwoody, president of the Taylor County NAACP, disagrees with that assessment.

Things in Perry have soured since 2001, he said.

"People want to make it look like things are getting better," Dunwoody said. "I think things have gotten worse."

Black students are punished more severely than white students for the same infraction, Dunwoody said, causing tension in local schools. And although some businesses, such as Buckeye, made a real effort after the Perry Package incident to hire blacks, many others continued to hire only whites, he said.

"More-qualified blacks are not getting jobs that are being given to less-qualified whites," Dunwoody said. And the race relations committee wasn't aggressive enough, he said.

Patel worries that the state, if not the race relations committee, is too aggressive, at least where his motel is concerned.

"I don't have any idea why they are accusing me," said Patel.

Patel's two-story, orange-brick Southern Inn with its sky blue doors sits on U.S. 19 in Perry. In the lobby, a large American flag hangs in the window where drivers can't miss it. Two plastic flags are stuck on the front door and a large picture of a flag and an eagle hang over the front desk with the words God Bless America. Formerly the Villager Lodge, the motel was renamed the Southern Inn two years ago by Patel.

The St. Petersburg Times reported two years ago that a black guest of the Villager Lodge complained of poor treatment at the motel's pool in 1999.

Jeanette Flowers was enjoying the pool with family members when she said "the owner came out and started pouring bleach in the pool." She filed complaints with state regulators, but nothing could be proven and Patel was cleared of wrongdoing.

Patel has two weeks to give Crist the names of all the customers who have stayed in the hotel since July 2002 and what he charged them.