Carolyn House Stewart remembers the racism. • Subtle pranks from classmates. Questionable conduct from school leaders. Stewart recalls a time in the late 1960s where citizenship at Brandon High School proved challenging for everyone. • Sometimes kids stopped talking after she sat down next to them, or somebody pushed her into a locker when she wasn't looking. In class, she would get up to sharpen her pencil and return to her desk to find her paper missing. • Teachers, she said, openly discussed the Ku Klux Klan and whether or not some local families were involved in the white supremacist group. They also put her and fellow black student, Sam Jones, into separate classes, possibly for talking too much, but perhaps to weaken a bond. • For Stewart, 60, the social struggles she faced were compounded by academic and extracurricular limitations. She credited societal role models like Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. for teaching her that "black is beautiful," but she lacked educational champions. • "It was tough to get a B in a class when I knew I made an A," said Stewart, now a shareholder in the law firm of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen and international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. "We suffered for a lack of guidance for higher education. You didn't know college was an option."
Ahead of their time
Mandated busing began in 1971 for Hillsborough County, 13 years after four black parents and their children took the school district to court in Manning vs. the School Board of Hillsborough County.
Stewart, who graduated from Brandon in 1970 and went on to the University of South Florida, was part of what she called the "second wave" of blacks who voluntarily attended Brandon High School before mandated busing, a time when most African-Americans attended Blake or Middleton high schools in Tampa.
Brandon enrolled its first black students during the 1966-1967 school year. Whether they realized it at the time or not, approximately six seniors, along with two dozen juniors and three dozen sophomores, broke the color barrier at the school. Don McClarty, who went on to a long career with the CSX Corp., became the Eagles' first black football player. Debbie Jones was the first black student council member and Cynthia Niles was the first black to sing in chorus. Delores Johnson, Clarence Larry and Evelyn McClarty also were part of Brandon's first graduating class to include African-Americans.
Stewart lived in West Tampa at that time and walked to Carver Elementary School, before being bused to Booker T. Washington. She moved to Progress Village in seventh grade and was bused to Dowdell Middle School for eighth grade, which was a feeder school for Brandon.
Stewart said the transition to Dowdell was more traumatic and credits Brandon for being "more equipped to deal with subtle and overt racism." She said some teachers, like Mildred Scarpitta, were "very supportive" and even found her a partner to dissect frogs.
Stewart joined the Beta Club at Brandon and also became the school's first black "calendar girl" as a junior in 1969 when she was Miss September.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober was a senior at Brandon that year. He remembers Stewart's friend Sam Jones for his athletic prowess, but not any racial tensions.
"Sam was a good guy," Ober said. "He was very, very popular because he was a heck of a basketball player. I don't recall (integration) being an issue, quite frankly. I don't have any recollection of any difficulty whatsoever."
Alvany English Wilson began teaching English at Brandon in 1951. After a stint as a department head, she served as the dean of girls from 1968-1976.
"I felt (integration) went relatively smoothly," Wilson said.
Wilson, 86, credits much of the success during the desegregation transition to Willie "W.D." Johnson, who came to Brandon in 1972 as dean of boys. According to lore, Wilson said, Johnson curbed weekend break-ins at Blake by releasing some of his snakes in the hallways on weekends.
Such shrewdness led students to nickname Johnson, "Walking Death," hence the initials W.D.
Lyle Flagg, the principal from 1968-74, also drew credit for easing tensions during the transition.
"He was nice," said Stewart, who is married to attorney Delano Stewart. "He dealt with people fighting on the bus and not all fights were about race."
Prepped for real world
Jones said his memories are more positive than negative. He was the first black student to join the Interact Club and was co-captain of an Eagles basketball team that went 13-9.
"I look at it two ways," said Jones, 61, who splits time between Hillsborough County and Trinidad. "My first thought is that it was something I chose to do. Living in Progress Village, it didn't make much sense for me to go to the inner city for school. Some were not happy that I and others were there.
"There were some obvious issues of race, but there were so many good teachers and students."
Jones said it did prepare him for the real world after school. He attended Saint Joseph College of Florida on a basketball scholarship, before graduating from the University of Tampa. He then served with the Tampa Police Department from 1973-2002.
Stewart also has fond memories of classmates Carolyn Darby and Bobby McClarty. Darby was Brandon's first black Kiwanette and joined Stewart as the only two blacks who attended their 30-year reunion.
McClarty was voted most talented male in his class. Known for churning out long touchdown runs for the Eagles football team, he played for Oregon State University in 1971.
Turning the page
It wasn't until 2001 when mandated busing ended that Hillsborough County earned unitary status, a term courts use to describe a system that no longer is considered racially dual, but rather desegregated. Stewart said by the time her second year as an Eagle rolled around, "Brandon became a family to everybody" partly because of the success of the 1969 state runner-up football team.
"A lot of us didn't care about integration," Stewart said. "It was a time when we took pride in being a Brandon Eagle."
Though she did say she felt like an "outcast" for going to Brandon instead of Blake or Middleton, she credits the school for instilling in her part of her sense of giving back, which she says likely started when she was in Beta Club. Looking back, Stewart said she is stronger now because of her formidable years when Brandon was changing.
"They weren't going to take my spirit or kill my spirit."
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]