Area black trailblazers reflect on journey

Published: Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 8:14 p.m.

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office Tuesday, he will make history.

But he follows in the footsteps of hundreds of trailblazers who moved the United States toward Jan. 20, 2009 - the day the first African-American will be inaugurated as president.

Several of those pioneers of social change who stepped forward with quiet courage have their roots in North Central Florida.

Take LaVon Wright Bracy and Joel Buchanan, two of the three youngsters who stepped through the doors of Gainesville High School, integrating a school that had previously been all white.

Bracy is the daughter of the Rev. T.A. Wright, now 88. As pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church and head of the Alachua County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Wright played a key role in moving Gainesville toward equality in education.

Bracy now lives in Orlando, where she and her minister husband, Randolph, head New Covenant Baptist Church.

In 1964, 10 years after the Supreme Court's decision desegregating the nation's public schools in Brown v. the Board of Education, Gainesville's schools remained segregated. Whites went to Gainesville High School; black students attended Lincoln High.

Wright filed a suit against the Alachua County public school system for ignoring the federal order to desegregate.

His daughter LaVon was one of three students chosen to leave Lincoln and integrate GHS. It was her senior year, and it was one she'll never forget.

On the first day of school, Wright drove her to GHS, followed by a police car.

"I was stared at, and was called all kinds of names," Bracy said. "No one spoke to me. No one sat near me."

A month into the school year, Bracy said she was jumped by a group of white boys and beaten bloody. She stayed home for three days, then returned to school.

"I refused to allow them to win," she said. "The year was long, silent and unhappy. The scars are still there."

Bracy will be in Washington for the inauguration of Barack Obama. It is, she admits, a day she never expected to see in her lifetime.

Joel Buchanan was another of the young black Gainesville residents who were the first to enter GHS, along with Sandra Williams Cummings, who is now director of human resources at the University of North Florida.

"People stared at us as if we were a different breed of animal," Buchanan said in a 2003 interview with the University of Florida's Orange & Blue magazine. "Kids would shout, 'N****** go home!' in the hallways."

He had set himself outside the circle in his community, as well, Buchanan recalled. Former friends from Lincoln High School acted aloof, thinking he'd chosen the white kids over them.

"I call it the quiet period," Buchanan says now of that year.

In January 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the county's schools were still "racially identifiable" and ordered Alachua County to fully integrate its schools immediately.

Schools closed on Jan. 29, 1970. When they reopened a week later, they were integrated. Lincoln High School was closed and about 1,000 black students were transferred to the 2,200-student Gainesville High School.

Buchanan went on to become one of the first 50 black students to attend the University of Florida, graduating with a degree in English. He is now the history liaison for the Smathers Library Department of Special Collections on campus.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephan P. Mickle, who grew up in Gainesville, is another pioneer for change.

Mickle came to UF in September 1962, at a time when the university had 13,826 students. Nearly all of them were white.

He recalls standing in line to register for classes. No one spoke to him. In classes, it was rare for someone to sit down at the desk next to him.

"I didn't intend for them to see me sweat, as the saying goes," he said in an oral history he recorded for the UF archives. "You wanted someone to speak to you ... to be friendly and talk, and that just did not happen."

Mickle majored in political science and in 1965 became the first African-American to earn an undergraduate degree from UF.

He went on to earn a master's degree, then entered law school in the fall of 1967. Two other students - George Starke and George Allen - had enrolled in law school before him, but Mickle recalled that he had never met a single black lawyer in his life.

Mickle graduated with his law degree in 1970.

In 1998, he was named U.S. district judge for the northern district of Florida.

More than four decades after Mickle broke the color barrier in UF's undergraduate program, the university has graduated some 12,000 black students.

"To be the first at anything is a challenge," the federal judge said. "It is a lonely position at times, especially if there is nobody else there who looks like you."

Buchanan will watch the inauguration on television, while Mickle is trying to arrange his busy court schedule so that he can attend in person.

Buchanan said, "We as people of color are going to be elated that one of us is serving as president of the United States.

"We are part of the reason that a person like Barack Obama can get to where he is," Buchanan said with obvious pride. "We have come to a totally different point in history.

"Change can become reality, if each person is willing to take a step forward," he said.

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