Bogie, Bradley and Busing
The Story of Pinellas County School Integration: A nine-part series exclusive to the Gabber
By James A. Schnur
Part 3: Brown, Gold and White
Last week we learned about Pinellas County’s separate-and-unequal system of dual schools during the early and mid-twentieth century. White students who lived in St. Petersburg’s south side often sat on buses that passed all-Black schools, such as Gibbs High, closer than their assigned “neighborhood” school. This week, we learn how court cases transformed the local educational landscape.
Pinellas public school enrollment soared in the two decades after World War II, from approximately 16,000 in 1946 to almost 80,000 in the late 1960s. Floyd Christian served as the county school superintendent from January 1948 until he became the state’s commissioner of education in September 1965. According to district sources, 64 new Pinellas schools opened under Christian’s leadership, including eight new or rebuilt high school campuses.
Post-war population growth in Gulfport, the Gulf beaches and western and southern St. Petersburg led to the approval of a new high school campus in Gulfport in early 1952. As the original buildings rose on the flood-prone grounds, the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) held an informal poll to allow readers to suggest a possible name, mascot and colors for the school.
The results published on July 1, 1953 revealed much about the time. The team name for the mascot receiving the highest number of votes was “Rebels,” followed by “Pelicans,” “Panthers” and “Pirates.” Gold and White were the school colors popularly selected. Although votes for “Gulfport High” and “Sun City High” outnumbered “Boca Ciega High,” word on the street even beyond the article also indicated some support for “Dixie High.”
Respondents did not select this last name to honor Dixie M. Hollins, the county’s first school superintendent.
Ultimately, the district accepted a motion by school board member Abe Pheil to name the school Boca Ciega High. The charter student body of 1,033 “Bogie” Pirates began classes in September 1953.
Two Brown Decisions and Many Angry Reactions
Attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) litigated many cases. Some focused on desegregating colleges and universities, others on elementary and secondary schools.
Five appellate court decisions from multiple states came together in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. On May 17, 1954, Justices delivered a unanimous verdict in these consolidated cases, commonly known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka for Oliver Brown, the first plaintiff in alphabetical order of the similar cases, who wanted his daughter Linda to attend a closer school.
In Brown, the Justices asserted that separate schools based upon racial segregation were inherently unequal. Their words overturned the court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decree. Realizing that this decision had broad and sweeping implications, the court gave all concerned parties a chance to file briefs and responses. After reviewing them, Justices would issue a second Brown verdict that explained how states and localities should implement this decree.
Justices released the second Brown decision in 1955, ordering affected communities to provide redress through “prompt and reasonable compliance . . . with all deliberate speed.” Imagine a sign on a highway advising drivers to proceed “with all deliberate speed.”
What exactly does that mean?
To the African American plaintiffs, the court had called for immediate integration; segregationists thought the verdict’s ambiguity allowed them to stall for decades or even centuries into the future.
Politicians at all levels obstructed and tried to postpone or overturn the decision. On March 11, 1956, 101 members of Congress signed a Declaration of Constitutional Principles – commonly known as the “Southern Manifesto” – to condemn the court’s verdict and deny its validity.
Many southern governors and legislators promoted the concept of “massive resistance” to protest the decision. Some states – with Florida offering a particularly obscene example – launched unconstitutional investigations that created false evidence to connect the NAACP and civil rights organizations with a supposed communist conspiracy. Some politicians worked covertly with hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council.
Although Florida had many reactionary community leaders who lambasted Brown, a single example will suffice. Sumter Lowry, a Tampa native and arch-segregationist, launched a campaign in 1956 to run for governor on a single platform: “Keep White Schools White.” When pressed to explain his broader platform, Lowry inevitably reverted to the same mantra. Although he lost in the primary, his ideas were considered far from fringe by many Floridians 65 years ago.
A Moderate Path with Roadblocks
Despite widespread and vitriolic criticism of Brown, Florida generally followed a more moderate path than other southern states. This happened largely due to the statecraft of LeRoy Collins, governor from 1955 to 1961. Although Collins entered the office as a moderate segregationist, he respected the court’s integrity and fought attempts by extremists to close public schools. Before leaving office, he became an advocate for integration.
During the mid-1950s, Collins encouraged the state to pursue a gradual path. Initially, he supported a Pupil Assignment Law and the findings of the state’s Fabisinski Committee that preserved dual schools. However, he refused to follow the path of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in closing Little Rock high schools to prevent integration. When Florida lawmakers passed an interposition resolution in 1957 that questioned the validity of Brown, Collins emphasized the preservation of public schools.
Superintendent Christian and school board members took a contorted path to comply with Brown. Rather than open enrollment to students regardless of race, they invested more funds to build and remodel campuses in long-overlooked African-American communities. In September 1956 – more than two years after Brown – Christian touted the district’s initiatives as evidence that Pinellas public schools were “separate but really equal.”
White students continued to ride yellow buses past Black schools, despite Brown. White athletes and cheerleaders in Boca Ciega’s gold and white uniforms now competed against their crosstown rivals, the Green Devils of St. Petersburg High. Black students attended none of these games.
Next week, we learn how a Clearwater police officer who wanted his child to receive a quality education disrupted this palette.
James A. Schnur graduated from Boca Ciega High as a member of the inaugural class that experienced Pinellas school desegregation from first through twelfth grades. To comply with court-ordered busing, he rode the bus for four of those years. He’s written five books about Pinellas communities and has also lectured and published about Florida and Florida education history.