Bogie, Bradley and Busing
The Story of Pinellas County School Integration: A nine-part series exclusive to the Gabber
By James A. Schnur
Part 7: Forcing the Issue, Riding the Bus
Gordon Young, Boca Ciega’s principal, faced yet another boycott in February 1971. These occasional outbursts seemed almost tame in comparison to public sentiment after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Swann decision two months later. This verdict permitted cross-district busing as a means of ending segregated schools.
The school board complied with the Bradley case by consenting to a revised desegregation plan on June 2. On July 23, Judge Joseph Lieb approved its implementation, adding the NAACP as a third party to monitor compliance. Angry voices grew among those who wanted to restore the so-called “neighborhood” schools that, in many cases, were more mythology than reality during much of the twentieth century.
Why didn’t Pinellas County simply follow the path of school districts in other areas of the United States? Those who have lived elsewhere know that municipal boards often manage local schools. Sometimes, the system for elementary schools has different geographical boundaries than that for high schools. Leaders could just do what they could have done years earlier: Gerrymander new school districts within Pinellas. “Problem” solved.
Except Florida’s new 1968 constitution required school districts to correspond exactly with county lines. Under the 1885 state constitution that lawmakers had recently replaced, Article XII, Section 11, said “any incorporated town or city may constitute a School District.” Legislators had slammed the door on a possible short-term remedy that would have had the long-term effect of Balkanizing and destroying urban schools.
Congress had passed a major bill to aid local districts with desegregation efforts. On August 3, 1971, President Nixon said he would prohibit educators from using these funds to buy buses. When local newspapers printed articles about the upcoming school year and preliminary bus schedules later that month, some of the words to describe certain neighborhoods had a bitter effect.
Stories in St. Petersburg’s former afternoon newspaper, The Evening Independent, generally supported the desegregation plan. However, articles within its pages could still paint uncomfortable pictures, such as when one writer described “lengthy bus rides . . . in which children from the St. Petersburg ghetto area are transferred as far as Seminole.”
Words like “slum” and “ghetto” appeared frequently in the local and national media at a time when geographical descriptions like “south of Central Avenue” and “49th Street” had growing racial connotations used to separate “them” from “us.”
On August 29, many schools offered a special Sunday open house to acquaint parents and children with their newly assigned schools. A group named Citizens for Preservation of Public Schools sponsored many of these meetings. Gordon Young and his Bogie teachers did their best to make Black families welcome. Countywide, these afternoon and early evening gatherings were deemed a success.
Rallies to Rebel
A different assembly had taken place at Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg. More than 5,000 parents and children attended a rally sponsored by Parents Against Forced Busing on August 28. Former governor Claude Kirk headlined the event, pledging to push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit busing.
After Kirk left the event, PAFB Chair Sam Buice shared the group’s strategy, a supposedly “legal” way for parents to keep their kids out of school without violating the state’s compulsory attendance law. PAFB leaders distributed thousands of mimeographed forms parents could sign claiming that they were “financially unable to provide the necessary clothes” for their students to attend school.
Buice encouraged parents to flood Superintendent Nicholas Mangin’s office with these forms. He added that they did not need to include names, addresses or legible signatures. Among those who spoke to the crowd and encouraged non-compliance with the busing mandate through this “lack of clothes” ruse was Ron Fisher, the school board’s chair.
As schools prepared to open, Kirk continued to play the role of obstructionist-in-chief. He sent Pinellas PAFB leaders a telegram telling them that parents should “take their children to the school nearest their home and offer them for registration in accordance with Florida law.” He added that doing so did not defy the federal court order since “we should and will have neighborhood schools.”
More than 1,800 anti-busing advocates gathered on the evening of September 6 – the day before classes began – for a PAFB rally at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market on Park Boulevard. Buice declared that they would strike against the school district. He anticipated that at least 20,000 students would stay home so Pinellas could “set an example for the rest of the United States.”
Compared with other districts in Florida and elsewhere, the first day of busing went incredibly well. On September 7, more than 165 buses transported nearly 46,000 pupils, making 7,700 stops to get them safely to 116 school facilities. Buses traveled almost 20,000 miles that day. The actual head count was 82,373 – 2,000 less than anticipated. Kirk falsely claimed that 9,000 students had skipped class.
Most absences occurred when white students zoned to schools in Black neighborhoods failed to show up. Gibbs High offered the most extreme example: Only 538 students came to campus on the first day, more than half of them Black. Meanwhile, Bogie’s enrollment exceeded expectations, with more than 2,300 students, 367 of them Black.
White parents flooded the school board meeting on September 8. They came to demand more busing – not for desegregation, but for their children who lived less than two miles from their assigned school. Holding placards with statements such as “Neighborhood Schools or No Schools,” these residents wanted the county to divert buses from routes that complied with the court order.
Despite such outcries, calmness prevailed during much of September 1971. Students at Boca Ciega were dismissed early on September 10, but not because of fights or threats. Instead, a more common nemesis was to blame. Anyone who ever took classes on the original Bogie campus remembers the way a little rain often turned into a lot of flooding. A downpour turned much of the campus, along with many Gulfport roads, into mini-lakes.
It’s All in the Name
On September 30, Buice officially filed paperwork to incorporate PAFB as a Florida non-profit. That same day, tensions escalated at Dixie Hollins. Classes and a football game with St. Petersburg High were canceled the following day, October 1.
The reason? Although their new school was named to honor a person rather than a rebel cause, many students and community members had embraced an uncomfortable unofficial anthem and symbol since Dixie Hollins opened in 1959: They often sang or hummed “Dixie,” a minstrel song written by Daniel Decatur Emmett a century earlier, in 1859, and brandished Confederate flags on and around campus.
Black students made up 0.65% of Dixie’s enrollment during the spring of 1970. By the fall of 1971, they comprised more than 10% of the student body. After teenagers on a biracial student committee made a statement by disclaiming the Confederate flag as an insensitive symbol, PAFB members and angry parents paraded around the school with Confederate flags, singing “Dixie” so loudly that police had to be called.
Similar to recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments and rename military bases presently honoring enemy combatants who fought against the Union, plans to lower the Confederate flag sparked reactionary outrage. PAFB supported a spur group named Parents and Students for Dixie whose members taunted anyone who disliked their display of images from the Confederacy.
By mid-September 1971, vehicles draped in rebel flags motorcaded through Lealman, Kenneth City and St. Petersburg as passengers pledged to “restore equal rights to whites.” An athlete at Dixie said it best when he told a reporter from The Evening Independent on September 25 that his classmates did not have these concerns “until all the parents were stomping around with signs about busing.”
Kenneth Watson, then-principal at Dixie, reassured parents at the time that the school would not be renamed “Hollins High” or forsake its Rebel mascot, changes that did occur recently. While Dixie Hollins was named after the districts first superintendent, its connection with the Confederacy – particularly the school’s mascot – remained. Royals replaced the Rebels at Hollins High last summer.
Despite such drama, students on Pinellas school buses passed the first test. But would their educational journey make the grade? Find out next week.
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.