The Magnificent Twelve

Article excerpt

The Magnificent Twelve.

The year was 1969. In a Tampa, Florida, high school cafeteria sat teachers and administrators from several area high schools. They were there to hear Walter Smith, program leader of the Atlanta branch of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. Smith had just arrived in Florida from Mississippi, where he had been run out of a small delta town for talking about desegregation of Mississippi's public schools.

Smith was now back in his home town to lecture the local folks on the desegregation of the public secondary schools in Hillsborough County. He lectured the hundred or so in attendance about what we needed to do, and was attempting to present us with information on the moral courage necessary to do the right thing. Smith was angry and it showed. My fellow social studies teachers at Leto Comprehensive High School were also very angry about our school district's pace with school desegregation. The Charlotte-Mecklenberg decision (U.S. v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Public Schools in North Carolina was the first decision that led to school busing and desegregation throughout the South) was, after all, a year old and officials of the public schools of Hillsborough County were paying only lip service to true integration in the secondary schools.

Sitting in that hot, stuffy cafeteria were well-known Florida public school educators, both conservative and liberal. The liberals, sitting in the front row, included Frank Scaglione, school principal; Robert Martinez, later to become governor of Florida; Sam Rosales, Buddy Tappe, Herb Kinsey, Herman Fernandez, Honor Liles and Dick Puglesi.

Smith orated in the cadence-like delivery of the civil rights preacher, imploring us to do something about the lack of progress, particularly as it related to desegregating the student, teacher and administrative ranks in the high schools. Those of us who agreed with Walter's rhetoric sat up front, first two rows. Those with the hard stares sat in the back of the room. This was Florida in 1969 and the fate of two large African-American high schools with distinguished histories and traditions were in the balance.

Smith came to his home town to argue for justice and equality. Many of the good folks in the back of the room had no interest in hearing Walter articulate what needed to be done for the future of the county's public schools.

I did not see Walter L. Smith for a long time after the early 1970s. Then, in March 1996, a group of California community college administrators, which included myself, were sitting at dinner with him to discuss our colleges and how we might aid in the development of South Africa's emerging two-year colleges. Walter is now a nationally recognized expert on the American community college movement and South African two-year colleges. Smith, who grew up a scant four blocks from my Florida working-class neighborhood, gave me an autographed copy of his 1994 book, The Magnificent Twelve, Florida's Black Junior Colleges. I read the book in three days.

Smith has cataloged the history and achievements of Florida's junior colleges in a moving and impressive book.

Between 1950 and 1957, there were nineteen African-American junior colleges in the United States. In 1949, Florida opened the first African-American junior college in the country in Pensacola. Under its progressive governor, Leroy Collins, the state encouraged local school boards to create junior colleges for African Americans. Florida was segregated then. Twelve colleges eventually opened to serve thousands of Florida's young African Americans who were "place bound" [restricted to a community by geographic and societal limitations]. …