Bogie, Bradley and Busing
The Story of Pinellas County School Integration: A nine-part series exclusive to the Gabber
By James A. Schnur
Part 5: The Mythology of Neighborhood Schools
When Boca Ciega High opened in 1953, children in Gulfport had the privilege of attending neighborhood schools. They went to Gulfport Elementary, which originally opened in 1910. Disston Junior High welcomed seventh through ninth graders beginning in 1926 and was known as Gulfport Junior High its first year. With Bogie in their backyard, Gulfport’s white youth could attend kindergarten through high school without ever leaving their city.
For many Black students, however, a visit to their “neighborhood” school required more than a short walk or bus ride. If a “neighborhood” school is the closest educational facility with credentialed faculty and accredited facilities, Gulfport’s high school students did not attend a “neighborhood” high school between 1927 and 1952. The closest such place was Gibbs High, an all-Black campus they passed on their way to St. Petersburg High.
Challenging the Status Quo
After meeting with Leon Bradley Sr. and other concerned Black parents, James Sanderlin filed a lawsuit that changed the course of Pinellas County educational history. When the documents reached the Tampa federal courthouse on May 5, 1964, Bradley hoped his son would break the color line by integrating John F. Kennedy Junior High School’s charter class that fall. This journey took much longer than expected, and, for Bradley’s son, never reached its intended destination.
A Clearwater police officer and local NAACP leader, Bradley endured an onslaught of threats and demeaning phone calls. He feared for his family’s safety. He resigned from the police department. Other plaintiffs involved in Bradley v. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County faced similar harassment.
Meanwhile, Sanderlin – an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – faced objections from an unexpected source: members of the Black community who worried that their students would bear the brunt of the burden and that authorities would close their schools rather than improve them for an integrated student body.
Sanderlin’s suit claimed the Pinellas School District violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown decision and provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At that time, 98% of Black students
in Pinellas public schools attended segregated facilities. The district wanted the lawsuit dismissed in June 1964, but Federal Judge Joseph Lieb denied this motion.
After some legal back-and-forth, the court called for an end of segregated schools by rezoning attendance zones in January 1965.
De Facto, De Jure and the Tipping Factor
Segregation patterns exist for a variety of reasons. Courts differentiate between de facto and de jure segregation. When members of a particular racial or ethnic group tend to live in an area, whether by choice, economic barriers or other circumstances, de facto (by fact) segregation exists. De jure (by law) segregation happens when ordinances, statutes and legal precedents prescribe separate facilities or enhance disparities.
Both proponents and opponents of integration often talk about the tipping factor, the point at which massive white flight begins after a certain level of desegregation has occurred. A half century ago, parents feared this would happen in public schools because they had witnessed it in other facets of life, most notably the real estate market.
Years ago, some real estate agents capitalized on fears and racism. As Black families moved into Childs Park, Lake Maggiore Shores, Lakeview and other areas by the 1960s, opportunistic agents aggressively knocked on the doors of nearby white homeowners. They warned the residents to sell immediately and move to another area before their property values plummetted. After the white owners sold low and fled to the suburbs, those same agents often brokered these homes to Black families at a handsome profit.
This happened in cities across America. White flight transformed large cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as smaller cities such as East St. Louis, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana. In some of these places, neighborhood schools flipped from all-white to majority Black almost overnight. Private schools and academies quickly appeared for the children of families who could not afford to move.
Based upon these trends in other areas of the nation, Floridians began to talk about a tipping point or factor. Would white students leave en masse if Black enrollment reached 20 percent? Thirty percent? For many parents reared in a segregated, them-versus-us world, even a single Black student enrolling in their child’s school was one too many.
Then it happened. A single Black student enrolled at Boca Ciega High School in 1965. How long would it take?
Clustering, Striking and Stoking Fear
Between late 1964 and 1966, the number of Black students in desegregated classrooms grew from 739 to nearly 6,700. Although notable, this occurred primarily in transitioning neighborhoods in southern St. Petersburg. Fears grew that many neighborhood schools would simply change over from one race to another.
Black students started to enroll in schools such as Childs Park Elementary (now Thurgood Marshall Middle), Roser Park Elementary and South Side Junior High School. To meet court-ordered mandates to integrate, district officials created clustering plans. Lakewood Senior High, opened in the mid-1960s, had an integrated student body a couple of years after classes began.
Two significant strikes during the late 1960s concerned Pinellas parents. One involved teachers throughout Florida, while the other encompassed sanitation workers in St. Petersburg. Claude R. Kirk Jr., a flamboyant entrepreneur, became Florida’s governor in January 1967 by campaigning for educational reform. The first Republican governor since Reconstruction and widely derided as “Claudius Maximus,” Kirk soon used these strikes to stoke new fears.
Teacher walkouts over salaries in August 1967 and February 1968 angered Kirk and many constituents. The statewide walkout in 1968 stretched over five weeks. Kirk reacted by promoting a plan to slash education budgets at a time when enrollment had surged.
His words mattered: He often called educators “militant,” played up public sentiment against teachers and pledged to prohibit any funding for desegregation plans that used buses.
More than 200 Black sanitation workers in St. Petersburg launched a protracted strike from May to August 1968. At that time, garbage trucks did not have lift mechanisms like many do today. These city workers did dirty, unforgiving work for less than 80 cents an hour. St. Pete’s city manager at the time referred to these men as “ignorant” and “illiterate,” adding that they did not deserve any wage increase. James Sanderlin got involved.
While fighting for Leon Bradley and other parents wanting better schools, Sanderlin also labored to empower these marginalized essential workers during a long and stinky summer. White reactionaries hated Sanderlin for both of these initiatives.
Then it happened. Escalating tensions during the prolonged strike that followed the earlier assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 and Robert Kennedy on June 6 boiled over in mid-August 1968. Riots, fires and civil unrest hit the city’s Black neighborhoods. Incidents of police brutality escalated at the same time Kirk decided to dispatch the National Guard.
News of this tension filled newspapers and the airwaves just weeks before schools were set to open. White parents feared having their children attend schools in those neighborhoods. The court ordered some of them to comply. A growing number resisted. Kirk grew more vocal in his opposition to busing, convincing parents that he could intervene to obstruct any court order.
A few Black students attended Boca Ciega in early 1968. As the sanitation workers continued their strike that summer, newspapers described plans for Bogie to accept 85 Black students previously zoned to Lakewood on a “temporary basis.” Fears intensified. The founding principal, Richard L. Jones, decided to retire after nearly 15 years at the helm. His replacement, Gordon Young, assumed control as rumors of race riots started to grow.
Nearby neighborhoods had changed. A governor pledged to maintain neighborhood schools even as the student body at these institutions started to look different. Uncollected refuse in St. Petersburg neighborhoods stank. A growing number of buses transported students to more distant neighborhoods.
Next week, we hear the rebel yell of parents against forced busing.
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.