Two talk openly about being

Black in Butler County

June 27, 2020 Cranberry Local News

Brady Patsy, a 2007 Karns City High School graduate and the adopted black son of white parents, says he has experienced his share of unfounded suspicion at the hands of classmates and police. He is the conservatory director at Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

One in a series of stories helping to spark discussion on diversity, inequality and social justice.

Well-intentioned friends of Brady Patsy told him on social media they've never seen him as anything but kind, talented and wonderful.

Having never really talked openly about his experiences, the East Brady native — like so many across the nation — was inspired to speak out in hopes of sparking a long-overdue conversation in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests gripping the nation.

In a widely shared Facebook post, in which he talked about growing up as a Black man in a predominately white county, Patsy opened up with heartfelt honesty about his experiences with racism in and around the county, even coming face to face with racial profiling by police.

“When that police officer pulls me over, he doesn't know that I'm kind, talented and wonderful,” Patsy told the Butler Eagle. “He knows I'm Black because that is what he sees. That is systemic racism.”

Both Patsy, who serves as the conservatory director at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, and Dorothea Epps, head coach of the Seneca Valley girls varsity basketball team, shared their stories with the newspaper about growing up and living as persons of color in Butler County. Both say they have experienced consistent discrimination throughout the county and region that is unimaginable to most white people.

But the nationwide outrage following Floyd's May 25 killing opened the door — as well as minds and hearts — to a new conversation about the problem of systemic racism in Butler County and beyond.

At least that's the hope of Patsy and Epps.

'It's gotten worse, not better'

Epps moved to Butler from the more diverse Uniontown area 30 years ago. The longtime basketball coach said the poor treatment and outright discrimination she, her husband and now-grown son and daughter experienced continued unabated and unchecked for decades.

“People think this just started,” Epps said. “This has been going on for years and it's gotten worse, not better.”

According to the U.S. Census, Butler County's Black population was less than 1 percent in 2010, compared to 96.6 percent of the population that was white. Fast forward nearly a decade, and those numbers haven't dramatically changed.

In the 2018 American Community Survey, an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the county's Black population increased by less than one-half of 1 percent — going from 0.9 in 2010 to 1.2 percent in 2018, while the county's white population dropped slightly to 95.4 percent.

For Epps, her white friends in Butler are shocked when they hear what she and her family have endured because of the color of their skin.

“My son was run down by police while walking to his friend's house like he's someone who committed a robbery,” Epps said with noticeable frustration.

She went on to share the story of her son-in-law and grandson's encounter with police.

“My son-in-law was pulled over because he didn't look like he belonged in an upscale neighborhood and was searched with his young boy in the car,” Epps said. “The police said 'You don't even look like you have a license.'”

Yet another time, Epps' daughter was looking at an expensive item in a store while the two were shopping when the clerk pointed to less-expensive versions of the same merchandise and told the young woman “You might want to look at these.”

“We walked out,” Epps said.

Epps has been called racial slurs and even chased through a local dollar store by three young white men. Shaken by the experience and fearing for her life, she called her husband.

“I did not know these people from Adam,” Epps said. “I was scared to death.”

Patsy, on the other hand, enjoyed a largely idyllic childhood in East Brady as the adopted black son of white parents but endured his own share of unfounded suspicion at the hands of classmates and police.

In his Facebook post late last month, the 2007 Karns City High School graduate recalled various unearned instances of malice against him based on his skin color.

Among Patsy's recollections are a fellow 13-year-old classmate throwing him to the school floor and informing him that because he is Black, he should move when told to do so by a white student.

Patsy recounts how the principal refused to act on the violence, telling him it would start a race war, even though there were only eight other Black students in grades seven through 12.

As a teen in junior high school, Patsy said a young boy threw a bottle of soda at him, hitting his feet. The child's mother, he recalled, told the boy “Don't worry, buddy, you'll get him next time.”

Shortly after the incident, Patsy said he walked into a well-known restaurant, and a busboy said “Look at that, a (racial slur) that thinks he's a white guy.”

Interactions with police as an adult have been frightening for Patsy, who talked of being pulled over for a broken headlight in Kittanning and surrounded by officers because he was being “aggressive” according to police. However, he remembers calmly asking the officer who pulled him over if there was a problem.

In another instance, police asked Patsy to get out of his car, in which he was comforting an upset white, female friend. Once out of the car, Patsy recalls the officer telling him that it “appeared” he was getting in the girl's face. Looking back, Patsy said he made the “mistake” of trying to joke with the officer, telling him that if he got in the girl's face, it would probably be to get a kiss.

“He didn't think it was funny at all,” Patsy said. “He asked me to put my hands on the police car while he compared my story with (my friend's).”

As the officer walked away to interview the young woman, Patsy said two additional police cars showed up and the officers hopped out with their hands on their guns.

'It's time to wake up'

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when the Floyd video caught fire on social media, Patsy decided it was time to share his point of view on being Black in America.

“When I put the post up, I never in a million years expected this to have over 500 shares and 400 to 500 comments,” Patsy said. “I didn't think it was going to take off like that.”

But, Patsy points out, what America faces today and deaths like Floyd's aren't just instances far removed from Western Pennsylvania.

He said among the many Black citizens killed by police across the United States in the past few years is Antwon Rose, 17, who was fatally shot two years ago by a white officer from the East Pittsburgh Police Department.

“I read on Facebook that people from that area think PennDOT should break out the snowplows when these marchers shut down the parkway,” Patsy said. “Antwon Rose proved you can't run from this. It's present and it lives in the country and now it's time to wake up.”

Epps agrees, and said the anger of some white people is misguided in the wake of Floyd's death.

“All the people who are upset about the protests and the people being upset with us not trusting law enforcement, why are they not upset with the officers who did it or those turning a blind eye?” Epps asked.

Moreover, Epps pointed out, she's encountered many people living in the area who are under the misconception that the mistreatment of people of color doesn't affect them.

“This is not a Philadelphia problem or a big-city problem; it's happening right here in Butler County,” she said.

But on the other hand, suggesting all police are racist is not a message Patsy and Epps agree with.

For Epps, law enforcement is near and dear to her heart. Her husband is a retired state trooper and current Butler Area School District police officer.

For Patsy, the father of one of his musical theater students was one of the officers who stopped the gunman in the October 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

“He did a service that day that was unimaginable,” Patsy said. “Nobody, not a single person, is saying every single police officer in the world is a terrible person and should be fired.”

'It is a completely different mindset'

Epps and her husband gave their children advice when they came of age to drive on how to behave when pulled over by police.

Patsy's parents, who are white, gave him and his sister the best information they had.

“Yes, those conversations happened,” Patsy said with blunt honesty. “But my mother said that as long as I surround (the officer) with enough love, (mistreatment) wouldn't happen. My mother has said now, that's not true.”

However, Patsy thinks the conversation would have been much different had he been raised by Black parents.

He points to his belief that even his position as a director with Pittsburgh Musical Theater has no bearing on situations when he is pulled over by police.

“It's very important to understand that when a Black person gets pulled over, at least in my experience, your entire demeanor changes,” Patsy said. “You're so focused on following every single rule by the letter that you don't have time to think, 'If he just knew I was in a successful job ... '”

On the other hand, Patsy argued, is that when white people are pulled over, they don't have to protect their safety by saying they are reaching into the glove compartment or their wallet to retrieve the license and registration requested by officers.

“It is a completely different mindset that you have to go into,” Patsy said.

One of his pet peeves is hearing white people make the argument that if Black people would just follow the rules, there would be no police brutality against them.

“That phrase alone is racist,” Patsy said.

'A 400-year battle'

Epps said she feels an effective way to improve relations between races would be better curriculum in school districts. She said many children know Martin Luther King Jr.'s name because they get a day off from school, and some know Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

All, she said, know about America's history of slavery.

“They seem to be OK with teaching slavery,” Epps said.

She spoke to Brian White, superintendent at the Butler Area School District, about increasing emphasis on educating students more about the struggles of Black people and the accomplishments of Black inventors and others.

“He is very concerned,” Epps said. “He is trying. To me, it needs to start in curriculum.”

Both Patsy and Epps said there are actions white people can take to help rectify the problem of racism today.

“Be comfortable when others want to be a part of the beautiful community you've created,” Patsy said. “Saying, 'If Black or Latino people move in, it's going to ruin the neighborhood,' that's racism.”

Epps advises white people not to be afraid of the conversation.

“We don't expect you to know everything that we endure, but don't back away,” she said. “We would love it if people would ask us questions.”

But most importantly, Epps said white people must stand beside their Black friends and neighbors as they try to improve society and fight racism.

“Don't just say, 'Oh, that's too bad,' when anything happens,” Epps said. “When it's time, you need to take a stand and fight the injustices and fight for equality. We can't get it done alone.”

Patsy recommends watching Ava DuVernay's Netflix documentary “13th,” which was named for the 13th Constitutional Amendment.

“It goes through exactly how we got to where we are today,” Patsy said. “It creates the narrative of how when slavery was abolished, the Black man was basically put out there as a threat. This is a 400-year battle that has not been won.”

He said racism in America is a humanitarian issue that must change.

“All anybody is looking for is an equal voice and equal presence in this world as human beings,” Patsy said.

Epps agrees the time is long past to relegate racism to the tenebrous annals of American history.

“Can you imagine the world for my grandchildren if we don't solve this problem?” she asked.

Paula Grubbs

Paula Grubbs

Paula Grubbs is a Butler County native who has been with the Butler and Cranberry Eagle newspapers since June 2000. Grubbs has covered the Mars School District and Middlesex Township for over 20 years with the Eagle and her former employer, the Cranberry Journal. She also covers Adams Township, Evans City and Mars in addition to events and incidents throughout Southwestern Butler County as assigned. Grubbs has taken the lead at the Cranberry Eagle in reporting on shale gas development, which has been a hotly debated topic in the recent past, both locally and nationally. A 1979 graduate of Butler Senior High School and a 1994 graduate of Geneva College, Grubbs has won a Golden Quill and four Keystone state awards, plus an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Grubbs enjoys following the Penguins, Pirates and Steelers, volunteers with the Connoquenessing Creek Cleanup each summer, and loves spending time outdoors and bird watching at her Penn Township home. Grubbs is the daughter of James R. Davis Sr., of Center Township, and the late Maxine Davis. She has two grown children, Jacqueline and Thomas.