BY Dr. Walter Smith, Contributing Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — It was in 1949 when three young African-American men challenged the School Board of Escambia County about the establishment of a two-year college for white citizens and neglected the needs of the black citizens for education beyond high school.
These young men, who were identified as the Negro Citizens Council for Junior College development, were Clarence Benboe, Solomon Brookins and C. J. DeValt. After much insistence that there should be a Junior College for negroes in the Pensacola area, the School Board, with the approval of the State Board of Education, established years 13 and 14 at the Booker T. Washington High School BTWHS in Pensacola.
The doors to this institution were opened in September 1949. This effort brought forth the concept of the need for a Community College Council for the State of Florida.
Gibbs Junior College (GJC), the second Negro Junior College in Florida was established in St. Petersburg eight years later in 1957, under the leadership of Dr. John W. Rembert who was at that time the Principal of Gibbs High School.
The concept of public junior colleges was approved by the Florida Legislature upon the recommendations of the Florida Community College Council. Obviously, there were no facilities for the new college when it was founded. Therefore, the junior college students attended class at night in the facilities of Gibbs High School.
Nevertheless, Rembert with the support of several community leaders was able to get the school board to build new facilities within one year. By the beginning of the 1958 academic year, Gibbs Junior College was in its own facilities on the same street as the high school.
The GJC programs were outstanding throughout the 10 years of its existence. Under the leadership of Rembert, outstanding academic leaders were recruited to the college. The faculty came from several areas of the United States. Hence, an atmosphere of Metropolitan development was a part of the institution’s functions at every level.
This concept enhanced the development of outstanding students in academics, athletics, music, theatrics and other activities that undergirded the growth and development of the college. Throughout its existence, students came from several counties: Bradenton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, as well as Pinellas in the Central Florida area. Students also came from as far away as Orlando and North Florida Counties. The college also attracted students from the Bahamas.
When the institution finally merged with St. Petersburg Junior College, many of the graduates decided that the Legacy of the GJC must not fall to the wayside.
Therefore, under the leadership of several GJC graduates, led by the First President of the GJC Alumni Association, Teresena Bryant, the organization became a 501(c)(3) operation. This provided the opportunity for the development of scholarship programs to continue providing education opportunities to African-American students in pursuit of a college degree.
To date, the GJC Alumni Association (GJCAA) has provided scholarships to more than 50 students who began their education beyond high school at St. Petersburg College and many of them have continued to pursue further higher education opportunities at universities all over the country.
Under the leadership of President William H. McCloud, the GJCAA is continuing to grow as the organization’s leaders are reaching to attract former GJC graduates as well as other persons who are interested in helping the organization to make a difference in the community. The philosophy of the GJCAA is to motivate more African-American youth to attain a college education and pursue a variety of professional careers.
The 2014 Celebration continued the historical concept of recognizing outstanding faculty and staff, graduates of the college, honoring prospective scholars and the maintenance of the celebrated Golf Tournament at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.
Perhaps, the most outstanding event this year was the “Ring of Honor.” This exciting activity that was held on the Gibbs Campus of St. Petersburg College provided special recognition to administrators, faculty members, athletic coaches and outstanding student leaders and athletes.
Under the leadership of Alumni Minson Rubin and Josephine Smith, a vast array of administrators, faculty and students who provided great leadership to the operation of the institution during their careers were recognized. Dr. Paul Mohr, former faculty and alumnus Ann Sherman introduced the 2014 Ring of Honor Recipients.
A variety of faculty and staff were present including, but not limited to, Dr. Margret Arnold, Coaches Norman Jackson, George Brown, Charles White and Lois Howard.
There were a number of Alumni present such as golf pro Rufus Lewis, Dr. Calvin Harris, Teresena Bryant and former president of the GJCAA brought the most noticeability among alumni to the crowd in attendance. And just maybe the presence of Altamese Brown, the first Miss GJC was there.
The Banquet and gala was held at the Hilton Carillon in St. Petersburg. This function highlighted the operational concept of the GJCAA with the theme “Our Roots, Our Legacy, Our Future.”
The master of ceremony was Channel 10’s lead anchor Reginald Roundtree and State Representative Darryl Rouson, son of the late Dr. Ervin Rouson who was the director of guidance at GJC, was also on hand.
The keynote speaker for the event was St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and closing remarks were given by Dr. William Law, President of St. Petersburg College. His remarks were very supportive of the efforts of the GJCAA, and he further indicated that the efforts of the association are an asset to the broad community as well as the individual students who receive scholarship support through the organization.
President McCloud made it very clear that his efforts on into the future will be focused on whatever it takes to keep the “Legacy of Gibbs Junior College Alive.”