Desegregating pioneers of Pinellas County Schools

Gwendolyn Reese, president African American Heritage Association St. Petersburg

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Through its partnership with Tombolo Books, the African American Heritage Association St. Petersburg held its latest Community Conversation on Dec. 16, discussing Pinellas County Schools’ desegregation. Gwendolyn Reese, president of AAHASP, was joined by some of her old classmates, all of whom were among the first Black students to attend all-white schools in St. Pete.

Panelists included Thelma Bruce, first vice president of the Dierdre Downing-Jackson, Dr. Barbara Williams and Rev. Watson Haynes.

Thelma Bruce, Dierdre Downing-Jackson, Dr. Barbara Williams and Rev. Watson Haynes

Though the landmark ruling of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954 mandated that schools be desegregated, it wasn’t until 1971 that comprehensive segregation occurred in Pinellas.

Bruce was one of eight students to go from 16th Street Junior High School to Dixie Hollins High for a trial integration period. She didn’t want to go, she explained, as she had looked forward to attending the then all-Black Gibbs High School and joining her older sister there. Though Bruce had been used to a “loving atmosphere” in a school with other Black classmates and Black teachers who really wanted to see their students succeed, her parents were firm that she would attend Dixie Hollins.

“Imagine this: an African-American student attending a school by the name of ‘Dixie’ Hollins High, where the school flag was the rebel flag, and where the school’s song was ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie,’” she said. “Well, that only escalated my desire not to be there.”

She adjusted to her situation as best she could, recalling even though she wasn’t enthusiastic about some aspects of her new surroundings. Bruce doesn’t believe she ever once joined in when other students sang “Dixie” at school assemblies.

“It was a hard road to walk,” she said.

Downing-Jackson, also a product of 16th Street Junior High, attended Dixie from 1963 to 1966. She pointed out that her mother, who was a teacher, wanted to ensure her daughter would not be going to Dixie alone and had talks with the parents of the other seven students to ensure they’d all be attending.

Downing-Jackson had her share of challenges as well, as she became the first African-American majorette at the school — a majorette sporting a uniform with the Confederate flag on it. During road trips around the state, restaurants refused to serve her and her fellow Black bandmate, as they were the only African Americans in the school band, but her classmates stood in solidarity.

“The band always refused to stay and would always leave,” she said, “and just about every town in the state of Florida didn’t want us.”

Yet still, there were many discrepancies at Dixie Hollins. For one, Black students were not made aware that college admissions officers were visiting the campus. Downing-Jackson, who had college ambitions, found out that these officers were visiting and eventually attended the University of Denver.

She also recalled how her father would pick up all eight Black students from school every day in his Volkswagen bus for their safety.

“The first day of school, the kids on the bus hung out the windows and yelled, ‘Go home,’ the n-word!'” she said.

Since her days at Dixie Hollins, Downing-Jackson has attended two class reunions and reconnected with many classmates, some of whom admitted that they hadn’t realized how courageous she and the other seven Black students were at the time.

Williams grew up in the heart of historic Methodist Town and attended Davis Elementary but, due to overcrowding, moved to Perkins Elementary for third grade. She called one of the best experiences of her life, as the committed principal would meet the bus every morning to greet the students, and then the teacher would personally walk the students from the bus to the classroom and say, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your classroom!”

“We felt so special and so valuable,” Williams remembered.

During the summer of her sixth-grade year, there would be white kids on their way to school who would walk past the door of her family’s home, located a half-block from St. Anthony’s Hospital. When young Williams asked where they went to school, they told her Mirror Lake Junior High.

Williams’ mother thought it wasn’t right that these kids could walk to their neighborhood school, yet her children had to go across town to attend school. Williams and her mother went to Mirror Lake Junior High to get answers, but there they told her “colored children were not allowed in the school.” Williams’ mother simply would not accept this.

“She said, ‘This school is in my neighborhood, and I want my children to go to this school.’ She and my dad were determined that we were going to go to the closest school to our neighborhood, and that was Mirror Lake Junior High School,” Williams said.

School administrators at Mirror Lake told Williams’ mother that they weren’t sure her children would be able “to handle the pressure.” What kind of pressure?

“Academically,” Williams said. “They didn’t think we were intelligent enough.”

Williams’ mother pressed, assuring the administrators that her children were indeed intelligent enough. They told her that they would have to take a battery of tests. Williams and her sister dutifully took the written tests and passed them, only to face more skepticism.

The administrator then said to Williams’ mother that he didn’t think her children could handle the other pressures, such as name-calling. William’s mother turned to her daughters on the spot to disarm this concern.

“My mom looked at my sister and said, ‘What’s your name?’ She said, ‘Patricia Ann Jones.’ She looked at me and said, ‘So what’s your name?’ I said, ‘Barbara Jean Jones.’ She said, ‘If they call you anything other than that, they’re not talking to you, do you understand me?’ And we said, ‘Yes, ma’am,'” Williams recalled.

Williams did enroll at Mirror Lake Junior High, the only Black 12-year-old girl at the school in 1963.

Haynes said when he attended 16th Street Junior high, he was aware that the teachers were doing all they could to help their students succeed, so he felt ready to enter Gibbs High. But when he realized his mother had plans for him to attend St. Pete High instead, he was reluctant and asked her why she was pushing him to go to this school.

Haynes’s mother, who had only a third-grade education and high hopes for her son, leveled with him: “‘Am I pushing you somewhere?'” he recalled her saying to him. “‘My expectation is for you to go to summer school, get your education and be a man.'”

Haynes soon found out that not only would he indeed be attending St. Pete High, but he would have to walk from the Gas Plant district to school because the distance was under five miles — not qualifying him for busing. He and other students like him soon found that because of the quality education they’d been getting at 16th Street Junior High, they were now shining in their new high school.

“We were excelling in everything you can think of, whether it was math or science,” he said. “I even could recite the prelude to Canterbury Tales because of the foundation that we had received at 16th Street Junior High School.”

He called his experiences at St. Pete High “phenomenal” and felt able to meet all challenges, such as joining the debate team. A Black student on the debate team in a white school was uncommon, to say the least. Bracing for certain hardships that might accompany such a change, Haynes and other Black students found instead that they received “a lot of respect” from the teachers.

Bruce was also on her high school’s debate team and recalled that at one competition she won second place. A teacher told her she should be proud to achieve second place because she would never get first place among white kids. Teenaged Bruce took it as a condescending remark.

“I thought, ‘What you think of me does not define me,'” she remembered. “‘What you think I can do does not limit me.'”

It was a motivation that Bruce used to graduate from Dixie Hollins with full scholarships to Florida State University, where she received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.

“I think that teacher, in spite of her intent, gave me a very important message that I was able to turn around into a positive message and keep that for myself,” Bruce said.

Haynes believes that attending a desegregated school has helped him develop and shown him what level he could compete. Though teenaged Haynes was eyeing a possible career as an engineer, he recalled a teacher at St. Pete High, who was impressed with his speaking skills and urged him to run for office, where he would have to deliver a speech. Sure enough, he won the office in his student council, which broadened his scope of what he could accomplish.

“My experiences showed me that I can compete in a larger society,” he said.

Downing-Jackson holds 16th Street Junior High dear in her memory, called it a nurturing environment and can still recall all her teachers’ names there.

“We were raised to believe that we only had to open our hearts and minds to get to know one another,” she said. “There is a realization that we are not all alike and that integration opens eyes to and introduces one to the fact that all people have challenges. It is an opportunity to see how other people live. It is also a learning experience as we adjust to one another and realize we’re just as smart, and that we all have dreams.”

All four panelists went on to have wildly successful careers and are all respected members of the community.

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