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Emanuel Stewart, Pinellas civil rights leader and educator, dies

ST. PETERSBURG — He was "the black superintendent," a nickname other black educators gave him to signify his stature in the community. He fought for change as a civil rights activist, and helped implement change as principal of Gibbs High School in the 1960s and as an administrator when the Pinellas County schools were desegregated in 1971.

The one thing friends remember more than anything else about Emanuel Stewart has nothing to do with his 42-year career in education, or his work for equality, though.

Above all else, Mr. Stewart was one good-looking guy.

"He was just about the most handsome man in St. Petersburg. … He looked like somebody from GQ magazine," said local civil rights leader Sevell Brown, 61, whose mother was a bookkeeper at Gibbs High School when Mr. Stewart was the principal.

Mr. Stewart, 93, died Sunday morning, four days after a stroke sent him into a coma. Once they got past talking about his wavy, silver hair and striking good looks, friends and family Sunday remembered the calm, even-handed approach of a man who led Gibbs High through a turbulent time.

When Mr. Stewart, an Ocala-area native who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, became Gibbs' principal in 1958, he took on the challenge of leading a black high school that lacked equipment and resources.

The desks were old and used, sent there from white schools. Gibbs' athletic teams had to travel to Jacksonville and Miami to face other black teams, since they were barred from competing against white schools. At a meeting, a county administrator referred to "all six of our high schools," Mr. Stewart later recounted, leaving out Gibbs.

But despite all the disadvantages Mr. Stewart's new school faced, he fought for equality with a cool, calm demeanor, friends said.

"He recognized that we could and should protest our conditions, but to do so, we should protest with diplomacy," said Paul Mohr, 80, a 1949 Gibbs High graduate who worked in Pinellas County schools with Mr. Stewart.

"He hardly ever raised his voice in anger," said Mohr, former president of Talladega College in Alabama.

Mr. Stewart grew up during the Great Depression on a farm near Ocala. One of eight children, he fought in the Pacific in World War II, then put himself through college when he returned.

He taught in Tarpon Springs and was principal of Jordan Park Elementary School before coming to Gibbs. When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools started allowing black schools to apply for accreditation, Gibbs was among the first to earn the status. Mr. Stewart later called Gibbs' accreditation his proudest accomplishment.

Mr. Stewart left Gibbs in 1969 for an administrative position with the school district, and peers said he was instrumental in helping the district integrate in 1971. He retired in 1981.

Pinellas County School Board member Lew Williams, 68, said he and other younger black educators back then called Mr. Stewart "the black superintendent."

"We had very few upper-level African-American educators (at that time)," Williams said. "We would go to him for advice. … He was very resourceful."

Mr. Stewart is survived by his wife of 60 years, Chrystelle, their two sons, two grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

In 2003, Mr. Stewart talked to the St. Petersburg Times for a story about the changing of the guard among local civil rights leadership as members of his generation died. His message: The civil rights movement has made progress, but there's still work to be done. "Since segregation and the plight of the Negro was for such a long period of time entrenched so deeply into the ideas of society, it's not something that is going to be corrected overnight," Mr. Stewart said. "That's why we keep plugging away. Hopefully, there will come a day when we don't have to have civil rights leaders. But I don't think that day is now."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@sptimes.com.

Emanuel Stewart, Pinellas civil rights leader and educator, dies 09/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 4, 2011 11:24pm]
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