Teachers drive integration in schools
Tensions ran high in Alachua County as black, white students changed schools.
Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 10:49 p.m.
By the time the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his most famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, the nation already was moving toward a more integrated society.
But full integration was still a long way off, and it would be seven years before King’s dream began to take shape in Florida’s schools.
Public school teachers, Alachua County Schools Superintendent Dan Boyd said, were on the front lines of that.
Teachers played a huge role in integrating American society, he said. They drove the process.
“We need to remember, as a nation, the contribution that public school teachers all over America made to this very, very important effort to make America a stronger country,” Boyd said. “I’m very proud that I’ve played a very small role.”
Boyd began teaching in Alachua County in 1964, 10 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
However, Florida still was very much segregated.
Black students attended Duval, Lincoln or Williams elementary schools and Lincoln High School, which served grades seven through 12.
Lincoln Elementary later became A. Quinn Jones Elementary, which is now the A. Quinn Jones Center. Duval and Williams elementary schools remain open.
Alachua County Public Schools were operating under “freedom of choice,” meaning black students could choose to go to the white schools and vice versa.
Boyd said that by 1969, a handful of black students each year, mostly athletes, were choosing to attend Santa Fe and Gainesville high schools.
As for white students choosing to go to the black high school, Lincoln, “I knew of none,” Boyd said. Boyd became principal of Chiefland High School in Levy County the following year and oversaw its integration. Alachua County schools were integrated in the 1970-71 school year.
At Chiefland, he said, the year went pretty smoothly.
In Gainesville, it did not.
Tommy Tomlinson, a former educator and deputy superintendent for Alachua County Public Schools, was in charge of zoning and bus routes for the district during that time.
The district began the process of integration in the middle of the school year, he said.
Schools closed for a week while the district reorganized, which involved closing Lincoln High School.
Lincoln, with about 1,200 students in grades seven through 12, was one of the most acclaimed minority schools in the state, Tomlinson said. It was one of the first accredited schools for minorities in Florida, and the football team had just won a state championship in the minority league.
When Lincoln’s doors were shut and its students moved to Gainesville High School and surrounding middle schools, he said, there were some bad feelings on all sides.
“We got along pretty good for maybe one or two months,” he said, before it got ugly.
“When we opened up the school one morning,” Tomlinson said of GHS, “they had the largest rebel flag I had ever seen tacked up on the gymnasium, and within a few minutes, the school was in a complete riot.”
Officers from every local law enforcement agency came out to calm the melee. When everything was under control, the students were sent home for two days.
That was the only big physical altercation at the newly integrated schools, Tomlinson said. There were a handful of tense events at Gainesville, Santa Fe and Newberry high schools throughout the rest of the year.
But, he said, “it would be less and less each time.” By the end of the school year, it wasn’t a problem anymore.
Tomlinson said one of the most difficult parts of the process was desegregating the public school faculty, as well. Federal courts determined the student body as well as the faculty at each school must reflect the racial makeup of the county to within five percentage points.
For the first five or six years after the ruling came down, Tomlinson said he was redrawing zoning lines and shuffling teachers all the time. After that, the numbers started to even out.
Looking back, Tomlinson said he doesn’t remember being terribly excited to begin the process of integration in schools. His wife was a teacher and his two daughters were in school in the district, and integration was a tremendous undertaking.
But after it happened, he said, he felt fortunate to have helped lead the district through the process.
“You hear people say, ‘It’s impossible. You can’t do that,’” he said. “We found out that nothing is impossible.”