BY INDHIRA SUERO ACOSTA, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – School Board Chair René Flowers is the youngest of 12 children. She grew up in a time when separate was not equal, but children managed to walk away with a top-notch education. Her parents enforced education, and she now strives to do the same for her students in District 7.
Growing up in racially divided St. Pete, her parents did not shield them from the insidiousness of Jim Crow. In fact, they used those trying times as teachable moments. They taught their children to grasp at every opportunity possible.
“We had a sense of pride instilled in us by our parents. I’m grateful,” Flowers said.
Indeed, she grew up with excellent examples. Her mother studied at the Tuskegee Institute, and her father was in the military and fought in the Korean War.
Flowers, born and raised in Jordan Park, enjoyed the rich experience of growing up in a neighborhood where everyone knew and respected each other.
“I wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” Flowers said with a glimpse of emotion in her voice.
Flowers remembers the days when 22nd Street South was the heart of the black community. A time when the corridor was filled with black-owned businesses such as grocery stores, dry cleaners, shoe repair shops, and clothing stores just to name a few. Those were the days when the black dollar did not leave the neighborhood.
When looking for entertainment, people went to the Royal Theater to watch a movie or to the Manhattan Casino to dance and listen to jazz.
In those days, young people such as Flowers and her siblings had a strong desire to learn despite the second-class educational system afford to African Americans. She remembers being focused on learning about her heritage and history. To them, black history was to be celebrated daily, not just in February.
Her parents didn’t let them just run wild. The young ladies were in the Girls Scouts or the 4-H Club, and the boys were in the Boy Scouts. Their childhood was idyllic—Flowers played jackstones with her friends, made mud pies along the road and sneaked out her mom’s flour and Baking Soda to conduct science experiments.
There was always something to do, and whatever it was, it was something that lifted people up.
“The community helped one another. If I did something wrong, our neighbors would tell my parents, ‘René came home from school, but she was out when she wasn’t supposed to.’ Nowadays if you say something to some parents about their children, you may not get a warm reception,” Flowers said.
She considers herself grounded in the Lord. Her family always made sure to put God first in their lives. “I give Him credit for everything that I have. I thank Him for allowing me to have a mind that is open to being willing to learn because I’m still learning,” Flowers said. “I learn every day, and I am thankful for what I have been afforded.”
Flowers feels she’s the person she is today because she was surrounded by people that poured so much into her life. “You couldn’t duplicate it anywhere. It was such an incredible time, an incredible moment. You couldn’t have told me at the time that my family was struggling because I never got that impression,” she said.
In her years as a school board member, Flowers has had many memorable experiences, especially seeing children with few opportunities in life walk across the stage and receive their high school diplomas- not a certificate of attendance.
“There are always going to be some children that struggle. There will always be some children with learning disabilities, and we need to have those programs in place for those students,” Flowers said.She remembers the case of a young man whose mother had a substance abuse problem. His house was unlivable–no food, lights or water. However, he was determined to get an education. He was confident in his capabilities, and he achieved his goal.
“When he walked across that stage, he said, ‘Ms. Rene, they said I wouldn’t make it, but I did,’” she recalled.
Flowers was elected to the School Board on Nov. 6 to complete the term of the late Lew Williams. She formerly served as a member of the St. Petersburg City Council, serving as vice chairperson in 1999 and 2006 and as chairperson for two consecutive terms, 2000 through 2002.
In August, she was elected to her third term as the District 7 School Board member.
Her civic engagements show no bounds. She is a member of the Pinellas County Urban League Guild, the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section of the National Council of Negro Women, served on the MLK Day of Service Committee and is a member of the of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Zeta Upsilon Omega Chapter , just to name a few.
Flowers is active in her church, Greater Mt. Zion AME, and has three adult children and two grandchildren.
This story is part of a 50-article series honoring black women in the Tampa Bay area.