ST. PETERSBURG — Between 1965 and 1968, a drama played out in U.S. Federal Court when 12 African-American police officers challenged the St. Petersburg Police Department's policy that restricted black officers from patrolling white neighborhoods in the then-segregated city.
The officers ultimately won their suit, opening the door for full integration of the department.
The drama will play out once again on Monday night at American Stage when professional actors and drama students from Gibbs High School perform a staged reading of a radio play written by three Southside Fundamental Middle School students.
The play, The Courageous 12, chronicles the bold stand these 12 officers took during the height of the civil rights movement and how their courageous actions opened the door for all African-American police officers.
The students wrote the play as an assignment for a creative writing course at school. They based their work on accounts from St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street South by Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson, as well as their own research into the history of St. Petersburg during the 1960s.
The girls said they chose the story because they found the courage of the 12 police officers inspiring and wanted to honor them.
"It's not every day that you hear a story like this," said Destinee Bullard, a seventh-grader and co-author. "Especially with the racism during that time; it had to be really tough. You have to give them their props."
Bullard said she hopes their story will inspire others.
"I think what they did was very courageous. Today, people in Midtown should realize that and learn from it and make it their inspiration," she said.
Southside Fundamental's drama club initially performed the play. Someone in the audience told Horace Nero, one of the 12, about it. Holly Atkins, the students' teacher, said Nero was surprised and delighted that the students had honored all of them.
When Atkins told her students about Nero's reaction, eighth-grader and co-author Alicia Klingensmith suggested they should further honor the men by restaging the play.
She said she believes it is important to honor the men's courage and spread the message of their story.
"One person can make a difference. These 12 guys stood up for what they believed in," she said. "It's nice for them to get some recognition," Klingensmith said.
American Stage partners with eight Pinellas County middle and high schools to provide a playwriting class as part of the writing curriculum.
The theater provides all funding, allowing the schools to offer the class at no cost to the county or students.
Atkins said that because so many Southside Fundamental students live outside Midtown, part of her goal in teaching the class is to highlight the voices and perspectives of the people in the neighborhood. "The idea of service learning is taking academics and meeting community needs," she said.
Julie Rowe serves as the director of education for American Stage and helps teach the Southside Fundamental playwriting class. She said it thrills her to showcase the students' work and message in front of a broader audience.
"I say from day one that what they write can make a difference in the community and that they can be agents of change, just by putting pen to paper."
Five of the officers who stood up to the city still live in Pinellas County and are expected to attend Monday's performance. Local leaders, including Assistant Police Chief Cedric Gordon, will attend as well.
The three girls expressed amazement at how their project grew beyond anything they imagined. They also speculate that the courageous 12 likely had no idea that their actions would impact far into the future.
"They probably didn't think they would get very far, but it became something really big," eighth-grader Kayla Allen said. "We didn't expect what we were doing to be that inspirational. I thought it was just a school thing, but it ended up something much bigger."
Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or at email@example.com.