The weights slammed on the floor. The sound echoed out of the home gym and past the black Range Rover parked in the secluded driveway and through the woods.

Simmie Strausbaugh was leading his son through another summer workout with weight racks, benches and barbells.

He’s preparing him to be the same kind of undersized, high-achieving athlete at the same school where he found so much success amid roiling pain, anxiety and isolation.

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Racism has colored everything in Strausbaugh’s life, from successes in athletics, the military, college, his job and being a father. His long-simmering distrust, anger and need for change drove him to the Black Lives Matters rally in downtown York a couple of weeks ago and have led to endless discussions and debates with friends and acquaintances.

He had hid most of his feelings and struggles for decades.

He opened up about his life recently, including raising biracial children, like himself, in predominantly white southeastern York County. While the area continues to diversify in small steps since Strausbaugh attended Red Lion High in the early 1990s, he believes it remains one of many communities across the nation in need of significant change for racial justice.

His second of three boys, Ladainian, 14, is about to enter the ninth grade as a running back in football and a sprinter and possible hurdler in track and field, just like his father.

Where Simmie Strausbaugh said he was one of only three Black students at Red Lion, Ladainian will be part of a gradually growing mix of skin colors and ethnicities. Thirteen percent of the school district population were members of minorities in 2017, compared to just 1.3% in 1995, according to an analysis on diversity compiled by the Washington Post. The Black population increased from 0.6% to 5.1% during that time.

“He hasn’t dealt with [racism] yet, but he’s going to. It’s going to happen in high school. That’s a guarantee. ... Being at Red Lion, he’s going to deal with it,” Simmie Strausbaugh said.

“I do pray to God he doesn’t. He needs to have the ability to focus on being a kid.”

He wants a different life for his children.

He wants it to happen in the same place that nearly destroyed him.

A sanctuary from racism

Strausbaugh is still pulled to those quiet spots along the Codorus Creek, barely a mile from where he grew up.

That is where one of York County’s most successful high school athletes found refuge as a kid in the 1980s and early ‘90s, exploring the trails, caves and woods. When families in Winterstown wouldn’t let him play in their yards or swim in their pools because of the color of his skin, he and his younger brother walked or rode bikes to the best escape they could imagine.

They’d swim in the holes of the crooked creek in summer and sled the hills and perilous back roads in winter. There, at the place locals still refer to as Rehmeyer’s Hollow, they were free from the rest of their lives as biracial kids in their rural, white town.

Strausbaugh, who works for the IRS in York, still comes here to think, reflect, decompress.

He calls this part of Spring Valley County Park his “safe haven.”

“So you come here [as a kid] and you internalize and start to question yourself. What’s wrong with me? Am I always going to be this way? Is this how it’s always going to be? I wonder what [other kids] are doing right now, are they even thinking about me?

“It’s the one place I have total control. It’s safe here.”

And yet, even here, Strausbaugh says, whiffs of those lifelong worries and distrust filter in. It happens when he meets young park employees or when white fishermen or hikers or bicyclists see him sitting by the creek or floating on a tube.

“If my skin color was different they’d expect me to be down here, it would be OK. But for a Black man to be down here and be so at home, at ease, makes them think, ‘You’re out of place, why do you feel so comfortable down here?’

“They have no idea.”

Strausbaugh’s mother, who is white, was 17 when he was born in a house in York City. His father was Black.

He describes a traumatic childhood in which he never knew his biological father, was sent to live with his grandmother for a few years in Florida and had family members arrested and jailed.

He described himself as living “in his own world.” He felt unwanted by both the white and Black communities, either for the color of his skin or because he was pegged as privileged and rich because of his white mother and Pennsylvania Dutch last name.

He remembers experiencing racism for the first time at 7. He was living with his mother and his Black stepfather. That’s when an older boy knocked the lunch tray out of his hands and called him a “n---r.”

He said the cafeteria workers brushed it off as if he dropped his tray. He didn’t speak up “because that was going to make it worse.”

He still recalls the name of the boy, each detail of the incident.

“Now, you’re not a kid anymore. Your innocence has been taken away,” Strausbaugh said. “Now you’re living in fear, you’ve been bullied. Your entire focus now is ... you rehearse responses to this kid and you find escape routes. You have to deal with the embarrassment of your classmates hearing what’s been said and they chime in and gang up on you, [call you] ‘black cigar,’ ‘spook’ and all that stuff.

“Then you become the negative focus of everyone’s jokes because of the color of your skin.”

Strausbaugh described himself as fitting “all the stereotypes of a person of color in Red Lion: “I was poor, I had an Afro and the way I carried myself was not in tune with what they wanted me to do. I was supposed to sit down in a corner and not be seen. Sometimes that wasn’t possible.”

He struggled to fit in, disengaged and produced poor grades in lower-level classes. School officials, he said, either ignored the discrimination or directly perpetuated it with whispered comments or by upholding stereotypes.

For a Black kid he does pretty well. ... You know how those people are. ... You can’t expect much.

A way to escape

Sports would become one saving grace.

Though short and slightly built, he was fast, instinctive on the football field and soaked in instruction. Football and track and field helped him conform or escape, whichever suited the moment.

He also felt forced to talk and joke his way out of uncomfortable situations.

“Because there’s no other way to turn,” he said.

“When I used sports, when I figured out how to use my ability on a football field, it was game over. I would put my helmet on and I was a different person. I can just now let it out. It became the focus of my life. It was the one way for me to get out of my situation.”

He remains Red Lion’s all-time leading rusher (3,191 yards) nearly 30 years later and was a PIAA gold-medal hurdler in track and field — at just 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds.

And yet even sports was not a solution.

“They love you on Friday nights when the lights go on. But when the lights go off, it’s back to normal again. Those same people there cheering for you and rooting for you, they don’t want you dating their daughter.”

Rather, athletics critically instilled him with confidence, determination and an ability to overcome. He used that to steady himself, as well as that small group who did support him with simple yet powerful acceptance — an elementary school teacher, an assistant football coach, a few close friends and their families.

He’s stayed in touch with them all through the years. He’s called his fourth-grade teacher, Marty Weiss, several times to talk, including on the eve of his graduation from Millersville University.

Strausbaugh always brings up one day in particular from all those years ago, and what Weiss took the time to tell him.

“He was challenging. He used to act out once in a while. ... [But] I felt there was an intelligence there even though his grades and school performance didn’t show it,” said Weiss, who taught elementary school for 35 years in the Red Lion Area School District.

“So one day he was killing me, giving me a hard time. And I said, ‘You know, you’re one of the smartest kids in this school,’ and that made an impression on him.

“Simmie just had this little flair about him. He kind of sparkles a little bit and as a little kid he was like that. I was attracted to his spirit and sense of fun and being inquisitive. I could tell there was something there, he was going to be a successful person. He wanted to be successful.”

Those lifelines would eventually pull him through potentially debilitating struggles after graduating from Red Lion.

‘It takes away from other parts of your life’

He quickly became a father and had a daughter and a son with different mothers by the time he was 21. He worked menial jobs and admittedly was drinking too much.

He decided to enlist in the Air Force to right himself and pay for college.

He served multiple tours in the Middle East, first arriving in Kuwait in 2000 as part of Operation Southern Watch. He did special operations work and was appointed to the rank of staff sergeant.

He left the military after nine years and immediately began working on that college degree.

Along the way he married a white woman and began raising his two youngest sons.

Racism still haunts him. Actually, when asked, he will describe details of incidents and implore the listener to make their own judgments.

Like the time when police suddenly descended on the parked truck he was sitting in outside of Red Lion’s Cape Horn Beverage. A friend was inside buying beer.

“They rip me out of the car and throw me on the ground. Gun to my head, dog in my face, yelling that we were trying to rob the place. ‘Where’s the ski mask! Where’s the gun!’”

Eventually, Strausbaugh said, he and his friend were simply let go without any charges or apologies.

He said he’s been pulled over by police more than 20 times as an adult. A handful, he said, were for rightful speeding violations.

He shrugs when describing the others: being pulled over for having an air freshener hanging in his rear view mirror, for not having his turn signal on long enough, for driving in the passing lane too long on an open highway — many leading to racial profiling.

He’s accustomed to an interrogation refrain of questions about where he’s coming from, his employment, if he’s carrying drugs or dead bodies.

The repeated trampling of his civil liberties, as he calls it, takes a toll.

“It comes through in anxiety, high blood pressure, hypertension, things of that nature,” he said. “It’s like you’ve got a rock and you got a sledgehammer and you pound on it year after year after year. Eventually the rock’s going to weaken. It wears on you because you spend so much time rehearsing responses, rehearsing escape routes, spend so much time doing things to protect yourself, it takes away from other parts of your life.”

And yet through this all, Strausbaugh is determined to live and raise his family in the same place that, at times, tortured him. For years, he continued to drive past the home of the man who stopped him on the side of a public road — shotgun in hand — for riding a moped near his property.

Part of him staying is being close to Spring Valley County Park, his “oasis.”

He talks of finally building a trust with those nearby, how his wife, Stacy, works as a social worker in the Red Lion school district and of feeling he can protect his youngest sons in ways he was not.

He’s not about to run away from his past or his present.

Hope for his children’s future

The tipping point, as for many, was the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, and the ensuing protests across the nation.

He’s had heartfelt conversations with his best friends growing up, whose white families did open up their homes and lives to him.

“He called me and thanked me for not being a racist. Why does my best friend have to say that? That hit me hard,” said Tom Bailey, who has known Strausbaugh since the fifth grade.

“I apologized to him that I didn’t speak up then. We now have a biracial son ourselves. We treat our kids and taught our kids to treat everyone with respect. But one thing we probably never did is specifically speak up and call others out for treating people wrong. I should have done that.”

Strausbaugh sees that kind of understanding and knowing as one more step to true healing.

His youngest sons and their peers are yet another. He wants them to succeed in a Red Lion system more easily than him. He points to the need for strict enforcement of a “zero tolerance” policy for racism and exclusion in schools.

“I would love for my son to experience the fun that I had and love I did feel [through school and sports]. But to get it wholeheartedly. I want him to experience the full force of what it actually could be.”

So he will not be driven away, certainly not from the racism, poverty and stereotypes of growing up. New layers build his defense all the time. He’s now a grandfather to a gorgeous 2-year-old girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.

“That’s my plight,” he said of those struggles. “You can either let that keep you back, which it was designed to do, or you dig deep and you find a way ...”

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