TAMPA — Hillsborough County has lost an influential voice for the integration of schools and racial equality.
Sam Horton, a retired administrator for Hillsborough County schools and a former president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, died Tuesday of cancer. He was 79.
"You could almost describe him as a visionary," said Hillsborough County School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, 65. "Many of the programs and practices that are still being used in the district were initiated by him."
As the county's first black general director for secondary education, Dr. Horton pushed for advanced placement programs. As NAACP president, he pressured the school district and city of Tampa to hire minority contractors.
"It is a sad day," Rep. Kathy Castor said in a statement, "but Sam led a wonderful life of leadership. He will be remembered as one of Tampa's — and one of Florida's — most remarkable citizens."
He grew up in Bealsville, an East Hillsborough town settled by 12 former slaves, who were his direct ancestors. "When you grew up in Bealsville, you expected to be somebody, you expected to do something," Dr. Horton told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002.
He earned a bachelor's degree at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he also protested at segregated lunch counters. He got his doctorate at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
He began teaching in the Hillsborough County School District in 1949, Castor's office said, and became a principal in 1965.
"He was calm and steady, but if you crossed him, he was a fireball," said the Rev. Shafter Scott, 66, who taught at Jefferson High when Dr. Horton was principal there. "We needed that kind of person."
In 1978, he became general director for secondary education and pushed for more honors courses and better facilities.
From that vantage point, Dr. Horton, who described himself as an "integrationist," saw things that disturbed him. Some schools were not kept up as well as others. They needed modern buildings, more books and laboratories. To him, it seemed as though the schools with more black students were falling behind the others, both in facilities and performance.
"He was very much involved with the desegregation issue in the Hillsborough County School District," said Pat Spencer, the area director for five NAACP branches, including Hillsborough. "He still felt that it had not been as successful as it should have been."
He retired in 1991, and the school district changed the name of Jefferson High School Stadium to Dr. Sam Horton Stadium. He ran for a position on the School Board in 1994 but lost in a runoff.
In 1996 he was elected president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP.
He lost some battles. He opposed separate redistricting plans by Hillsborough County commissioners in 2001 and the school district in 2003 that he thought would weaken the black vote or integration. Both measures passed.
The outcome of his biggest battle for integration remains uncertain. He watched the demise of forced busing and increasing calls for "neighborhood schools" with concern. The county — the nation, perhaps — seemed headed toward a de facto resegregation.
"Resegregation is occurring, and he was very concerned about that," Spencer said.
His health also faltered. In 2005, he relinquished his president's duties of the NAACP, resigning officially in 2006.
"He said, 'I'm turning it over. Keep the car in the middle of the road,' " said Curtis Stokes, 40, who took over as president in 2006. " 'Make sure you build a bridge.' "
A style gap emerged between younger NAACP leaders, such as Stokes and St. Petersburg's Darryl Rouson, who both single-handedly took on causes without waiting for organizational approval, and the more moderate leaders of Dr. Horton's era.
"He was from what we called the old school, but without his insight and even temperament I probably would have done a few more crazy things," said Rouson, now a state representative.
A tasteless entrepreneur infuriated Rouson in 2003 with "Ghettopoly," a board game filled with mocking racial stereotypes that was being sold in an Ybor City store.
"He stood with me in that battle," said Rouson, 53. "He provided the calm reflection but also the hard confrontation that balanced me from wanting to go there and snatch every game off the shelf."
Under pressure, the game disappeared from area store shelves.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.