Bogie, Bradley and Busing
The Story of Pinellas County School Integration: A nine-part series exclusive to the Gabber
By James A. Schnur
Part 4: The Busing Battle Begins
Leon W. Bradley Sr. worked as a Clearwater police officer, served as the vice president of that city’s NAACP branch, and watched the county’s strategy proceed at a snail’s pace. Boycotts and demonstrations had led to the peaceful desegregation of some St. Petersburg stores and luncheonettes by 1961, but public schools remained segregated.
That summer, two African American students enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College. In the fall of 1961, another Black student enrolled at the Tomlinson Adult Education Center near Mirror Lake. The school board had denied more than 900 other applications by Black parents to switch schools in 1961. Only three Black students integrated schools in September 1962.
A year later, a total of 118 Black students attended 10 formerly all-white schools. Although the increase between 1962 and 1963 sounds substantial, in reality it exemplified the approach of tokenism: Adding a single student of a different race allowed the district to claim a school had integrated. That fall, 57,124 white and 10,197 non-white students enrolled in Pinellas public schools. Shifting only 118 students seemed like scant progress.
Desegregation had not occurred at Boca Ciega Senior High School, Disston Junior High School (a few blocks to the east) or Gulfport Elementary School by 1963. Although Black families had slowly started to move into areas such as Childs Park and Fairmount Park, none of their children crossed 49th Street to enter these campuses. Similarly, no African Americans attended Northeast High School (opened in 1954) or Dixie Hollins Comprehensive High School (opened in 1959).
The year Dixie opened, Dr. Ralph Wimbish assumed the presidency of St. Petersburg’s NAACP branch. He joined various Black ministers in combating Jim Crow. That fall, an NAACP representative accompanied 11 Black students who ventured to the newly-opened Dixie Hollins campus in an unsuccessful attempt to enroll. They rebelled against a system that denied them a chance to become Dixie Hollins Rebels.
Their visit prompted an immediate response. White supremacists marched around with wooden replicas of rifles while barking out threats. The message a minister found on one of these rifles was blunt and clear: “Death to all race mixers! Keep your public schools white by massive armed force – Be a Paul Revere! Rally your neighbors to arms. Shoot the race-mixing invaders.”
Rather than retreat, Wimbish’s wife tried a different strategy. In March 1960, C. Bette Wimbish campaigned for a seat on the county school board. She appealed to constituents by talking about their pocketbooks, reminding them of the costs involved to maintain dual facilities.
Wimbish lost the election but her message gained some local traction: She received approximately 10,000 votes in a district with fewer than 4,000 Blacks registered to cast ballots.
A Junior College Takes Big Steps
Bette Wimbish’s message would never appeal to the fiscal conservatives who dominated Tallahassee. Although lawmakers regularly prided themselves on the state’s low-tax, small government habits, they spared no expense to perpetuate racial segregation, even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision had outlawed it.
When Black students tried to enroll in Florida’s junior colleges, the state found the funds to create a dozen new institutions. Some of these Jim Crow junior colleges were collegiate in name only.
The smallest ones occupied little more than a couple of rooms in an all-Black high school. In Jackson County along the Panhandle, 1,078 white students attended Chipola Junior College in 1963; a short distance away, 77 Black students represented the entire enrollment of Jackson Junior College.
Similarly, state taxpayers and Putnam County residents subsidized the 74 Blacks who made up the student body at Collier-Blocker Junior College to keep them from mingling with 855 students at St. Johns River Junior College in Palatka. These separate campuses illustrated the lengths Florida’s politicians went to keep white schools white.
Closer to home, the Pinellas County School District managed St. Petersburg Junior College. After Black students attempted to enroll at “Fifth Avenue U,” Superintendent Floyd Christian and the school district responded by getting the legislature to fund a new college on the campus of Gibbs High School. When Gibbs Junior College opened in the fall of 1957, its eight faculty and 210 students used the high school’s buildings during the late afternoons and evenings.
Funds long denied to Gibbs High miraculously appeared at Gibbs JC. New buildings opened in 1958. The high school’s former principal, John William Rembert, served as the college president. Under his leadership, enrollment more than tripled during the institution’s first two years. Rather than limit enrollment to Blacks in Pinellas County, Rembert and his faculty embarked on a strategy to build a larger student base.
Buses played an important role in Rembert’s plans. School districts in neighboring Hillsborough and Manatee counties soon offered buses so Black high school graduates could attend Gibbs JC. Subsidies kept the costs affordable, even in 1963 dollars. In the fall of that year, Pinellas County residents could attend Gibbs full-time for $93; students from Hillsborough paid an extra service fee for regular buses that ran to campus.
Rembert’s choice for the speaker at Gibbs JC’s first-ever graduation ceremony made a powerful statement. Rather than choosing a minister or some paternalistic white politician, he selected Branch Rickey, then-general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. As GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey had previously signed Jackie Robinson to a contract that later allowed him to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
On June 3, 1959, Rickey offered a memorable message to the 61 Black students earning their associate degrees: “You can’t attack prejudice with words, but proximity does wonderful things if you are worthy and can do the job better than anyone else.”
Whites flocked to the Gibbs JC auditorium on March 14, 1960. At a time when no college in the Tampa Bay region had integrated classes or faculties, they came to hear Eleanor Roosevelt talk about America’s role as a world leader. Whites made up the majority of the audience, comfortably sitting in a facility alongside Blacks at a time when such gatherings did not happen in classrooms, cinemas or restaurants.
So many wanted to attend the public lecture that hundreds were turned away from the overcrowded facility. Immediately after Rembert introduced Roosevelt, security officers quickly ushered the 2,000 people in attendance out of the venue due to a bomb scare. Twenty minutes later, everyone reassembled for the program. Gibbs JC had once again defied politicians and racists who wanted to keep people separate.
Leon Bradley did not attend Rickey’s commencement address or Roosevelt’s speech. He never took a class with Marjorie Carr when she became Gibbs JC’s first white instructor in September 1961. Neither did he enroll at the campus four years later when the 64 faculty at Gibbs JC (including one Chinese and seven white professors) taught 946 students, nearly 30% of the total enrollment for all of Florida’s Jim Crow junior colleges.
Nevertheless, he got the message. The senior Bradley wanted his son to attend the new John F. Kennedy Junior High School slated to open in the fall of 1964, rather than Pinellas Junior-Senior High. Less than 1½ miles separated these campuses, but Bradley saw immeasurable potential for his son at Kennedy.
Bradley met with five other Black parents from Clearwater, one from St. Petersburg and an ambitious attorney who filed a lawsuit on their behalf on May 7, 1964. Ironically, their lawsuit – Bradley v. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County – led to an order that closed Gibbs Junior College a couple of years later. St. Petersburg Junior College assumed control of the site that was briefly known as the “Skyway Campus” before it shut down.
Twenty years ago, St. Petersburg College subtracted the “Junior” from its name. However, SPC also added something when it renamed the flagship campus at 5th Avenue North and 66th Street “St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus.” This act honored a place conceived to perpetuate segregation that nevertheless offered African Americans an opportunity to pursue higher education. Some Gibbs JC graduates even rode a bus.
Join us next week as Bogie finally integrates and tensions accelerate.
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.