Gibbs High School graduates savor Obama visit

Herbert Murphy of St. Petersburg asks campaign volunteers if he can just show up at Gibbs High School without a ticket to hear Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama today.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Herbert Murphy of St. Petersburg asks campaign volunteers if he can just show up at Gibbs High School without a ticket to hear Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama today.

ST. PETERSBURG — Whether the location was sheer happenstance or painstakingly vetted, John T. Baker doesn't particularly care.

This morning, Sen. Barack Obama will speak to a packed gymnasium at Gibbs High School.

Think about it, Baker says: Obama, the first African-American to be the presumed choice for president of a major political party, speaking at Gibbs, St. Petersburg's historically African-American high school.

"How far we've come," said Baker, Gibbs Class of 1949.

Obama's morning talk on the economy is a watershed moment for Baker and thousands of Gibbs alumni — another step toward the equality so many have fought so long for, they say.

"I hate that school is out," said Wayne G. Thompson, pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church and Gibbs student body president in 1967 — the last all-black class, he added.

About 700 people waited in the rain Thursday evening at St. Petersburg's Obama office for a ticket to the free event. Louis Randle, Gibbs class of 1957, was second in line. Maya Thomas, Gibbs Class of 1979, was fourth.

An Obama representative was unsure why the campaign selected Gibbs. Doors open at 8:30 a.m. and Obama will likely arrive sometime before 10 a.m. Members of the audience will be allowed to ask questions during the town hall-style meeting, which will be televised live on Bay News 9.

"I think that Gibbs, having been the one, the only black high school for students up until desegregation, makes it a very, very symbolic place for what I consider a historic candidate," said Clifton Burney, a retired St. Petersburg social worker active in efforts to improve education for black children.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers agreed.

"For the first qualified African-American, for him to come there and have a town hall meeting at that school, it enhances the legacy of those students there now," said Flowers, whose sons and parents attended Gibbs. Flowers, 43, was bused to Dixie Hollins High School. "Hopefully, it will show the students that anything is possible."

The first high school for black students in Pinellas County, Gibbs opened in 1927, 17 years after the first white high school.

The school is named after Jonathan C. Gibbs, a black man who was Florida secretary of state in 1868 and state superintendent of public instruction in 1873.

For decades, students used out-of-date books, and Gibbs' athletic teams couldn't play white schools in the county until the late 1960s. The original school was replaced in 2006 with a $50-million, 300,000-square-foot facility — then the largest and most expensive in Pinellas history.

"We're very proud of that school," said Baker, who will celebrate his 60th class reunion next year. "That school was made for people of color. Now, that school has been chosen for someone of color who's actually running for president.

"Wow."

Obama in St. Petersburg

Sen. Barack Obama holds a town hall discussion on the economy today.

Where: Gibbs High School, 850 34th St. S.

When: Doors open at 8:30 a.m.

Who: You must have a ticket to enter.

On TV: Bay News 9.

Gibbs High School graduates savor Obama visit 07/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 4:37pm]

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