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Blanche Armwood's story is one worth sharing

My older son is a senior at Armwood High School, and my younger son is a junior at the school, but ask them what they know about the school's namesake and their knowledge doesn't go much beyond "she was an African-American educator."

Of course, it's difficult for me to criticize when a group of older and supposedly wiser friends recently exclaimed, "Armwood is named after a black woman?"

Yes, it is. And not only was Blanche Armwood a black woman, but she fought for her fellow African-Americans with the same fervor often displayed by the high school's football team.

Unlike the Hawks, however, Blanche Armwood didn't get to play on a level playing field in the early 20th century. In the Jim Crow South, blacks were relegated to second-class status, endured lynchings and struggled to find equality.

As Armwood expert Michele Alishahi wrote in her master's degree thesis, Armwood left a powerful legacy of resistance to those challenges both as a black person and a woman.

"She contested the white South's perception of African-American women," Alishahi wrote. "In a world that associated them with Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes, Armwood insisted that African-American women deserved the same respect that society accorded white women."

Most Armwood High students enroll at the age of 14. Blanche Armwood earned her teaching certificate at age 12 and then went off to Spelman Seminary in Atlanta, where she graduated four years later with honors in 1906.

The groundwork was laid for her advocacy role.

Friend and Hillsborough Community College history professor Keith Berry has done extensive research into Armwood's legacy, including a review of National Urban League papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

He echoes Alishahi's assessment of Armwood as an activist but also notes that historians debate her methods. One leader of her time, W.E.B. DuBois, fought for greater political representation with a protest approach, while Armwood initially aligned with Booker T. Washington, who espoused a more passive approach.

"She was considered the female Booker T. Washington by white supporters," Berry said. "That meant on the surface, she was considered agreeable and accommodating to whites. But a lot of people didn't realize that Booker T. Washington surreptitiously worked to advance the black race and the community. So did Blanche Armwood.

"She was operating the best she knew how within the swirling tides of interest that were around her."

Armwood brought a decided focus to her goal of uplifting blacks, starting with her role as the creator of a school that taught African-American women how to operate gas stoves, which were brand new at the time. She delivered her first lessons at the Tampa School of Household Arts, and then developed similar schools in Louisiana, Georgia and Virginia.

Basically, Armwood became a pioneer in home economics, known today as family and consumer science. She extended lessons beyond the operation of the ovens.

In 1922, Armwood's status grew when the Hillsborough County School Board appointed her supervisor of Negro schools.

During her eight-year tenure, she secured new school buildings, increased black teachers' salaries, extended the school year for black students from six to nine months and oversaw the opening of Tampa's Booker T. Washington High School, which would become the first accredited black high school in the county.

Armwood also was co-founder and first executive secretary of the Tampa Urban League. In that role, she advanced a number of causes to help her people.

Berry noted that while Armwood may have had an amenable public persona, she wasn't afraid to step on toes in private. He tells of a clash between Armwood and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune in which Bethune eventually capitulated and Armwood wrote to a friend that Bethune underestimated her.

Alishahi, who has a master's degree in history from the University of South Florida, believes Armwood couldn't be simply characterized as someone who believed in accommodation. Yes, she embraced the philosophies of Washington, but she also joined the NAACP and took part in the suffrage movement — signs that she wasn't always willing to go along just to get along.

It's noteworthy that at the age of 44, she opted to enroll in Howard University's law school, earning a juris doctorate in four years. Alishahi believes she may have gone on to be part of the NAACP legal team that helped bring down separate-but-equal education laws. Sadly, however, she died suddenly in 1939 while on a speaking tour.

Just like the Hawks football team strives to be adept at passing and running the ball, Armwood displayed a versatility in her life. In the end, she became a woman who adapted her outlook in a never-ending quest to find solutions.

It's a lesson that should be shared not just with every student at Armwood, but every student in the county.

That's all I'm saying.

Blanche Armwood's story is one worth sharing 02/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 3:30am]
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