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My father was a Florida activist

Let me tell you about my father. He was one of the first principals of Gibbs High School, once upon a time St. Petersburg's "black" secondary school.

I saw his portrait hanging at the school when I recently returned to St. Petersburg for the first time in half a century and toured the magnificent facility, which dwarfs the simple building over which he presided from 1933 to 1938. When I last saw the city, it was 1959, I was 13, and the Pinellas school district was segregated.

When I returned some weeks ago after a 50-year absence, the schools were again segregating, but now it is because of housing patterns, not because of the law. And while that is a bad trend, much good has happened in the decades since I was last here.

But let me start at the beginning.

Daddy, as I called my father, had an unusual background. A native Floridian, born 1896 in Falling Creek outside of Lake City to formerly enslaved parents, he was sent off with his brother, Gilbert, to the Florida Baptist Academy. There he graduated in 1915. A comprehensive high school degree entitled him to serve as principal of a four-teacher school in Fort Myers. World War I intervened. He joined the Army only to return with a different sense of what it meant to have a comprehensive education.

He entered Fisk University at the age of 23 in 1919 majoring in Latin and Greek. He earned his master's at Iowa State and began work on his doctorate during summers at Indiana University.

While teaching in Texas in 1931 he met and married my mother, Terressa Ballou. They eventually settled in Florida where as teachers they were paid 47 percent of their white counterparts' salaries. With the backing of the Florida State Teachers' Association they fought the system. They were dismissed for their efforts.

They continued the battle anyway. Of the three black lawyers in the state, one took the case and lost. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom my father had taught at Lincoln University in 1929, was with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He persuaded my father to abandon efforts in state court and file in federal district court under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. A long, arduous struggle ensued, which culminated in victory. But it came with a price.

My parents were threatened, both because of their activism in teaching and because my father was head of the Florida NAACP. Daddy was beaten, and one of his NAACP successors, Harry T. Moore, and his wife, were murdered. Forced to leave the state in 1944, my parents resettled in California at the behest of NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins. He offered my father a position as western regional director. After a brief stay in Los Angeles, he established the association's organizational network out of his offices in San Francisco.

In 1965 the white and black teachers' associations merged. My father was asked to return to Florida as their keynote speaker.

In September of this year, I was asked to represent our family in a centennial celebration of the NAACP and the 76th anniversary of the local St. Petersburg chapter. That was my first time back since my parents had put my brother, Gilbert, and me on a Florida-bound train in San Francisco to visit relatives and for us to return to the place where they led the fight for the equalization of black and white teachers' salaries so many years before.

The last time I was in Florida segregation was the custom of the land. Neighborhoods, beaches, restaurants and schools were racially divided. Although as I child I was unaware of job, housing and school discrimination, I do remember distinctly that I was in the South. People spoke and acted differently. Interaction was at a ritualized minimum.

And yet, my father had once made the argument to me that I could have received a better education in the segregated school system of St. Petersburg than the integrated Washington High in the San Francisco of the early '60s. "How's that?" I asked.

He replied: "There would have been a communal accountability, which was not there for you. I'd have seen your teachers at church, the NAACP meetings, at social events." And so it was that during my entire K-12 experience, I never had a black instructor. Indeed, there were no black teachers in any of the schools I attended. I was a student body leader, captain of the tennis team, an acknowledged vocalist and no discipline problem — yet not until I enrolled at Fisk University, a small historically black institution, were my academic abilities recognized, encouraged and demanded.

In St. Petersburg, much has changed, but sadly much remains the same. When I toured Gibbs High, I saw a magnificent physical plant housing a school that once again is largely segregated, not by law but by residential housing patterns. Yet the young principal, Kevin Gordon, who looks eerily like the picture of my father as a young man hanging in the school's office for nearly 80 years, has a clear passion for lifting the educational sight lines of his students and a devoted concern for their success, which I find missing from the inner-city schools in my home city.

Though Gibbs is only the only high school in the Tampa Bay area that was given an F by the state, in my short time at the school I could sense the respect that faculty, staff and students have for the principal, who took charge of the school this year. Learning firsthand of his vision of the future, I could sense positive change is afoot. There is an old expression: "I don't care how much you know till I know how much you care." I believe this man cares.

If my father, who died in 1974, could return to St. Petersburg, he would be encouraged with the interracial progress forged over the years. He would be proud that his home state voted for Barack Obama. My mother would have been comforted that their struggle had not been overlooked and many years later was remembered. Daddy would have been honored to meet Ray Arsenault, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg history professor who is documenting their struggle, while at the same time writing biographies of such notables as Marian Anderson, Arthur Ashe and the Freedom Riders.

My father would have told me stories that complement the book St. Petersburg resident Peter Golenbock had written about Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, which I read through tears in my eyes to my 13-year-old son upon my return home.

Ever the realist, though, he would have a clear picture of the work that is yet to be done. At the same time he would take heart at the long way we have come in the march toward true and lasting racial reconciliation.

Noah Griffin Jr. retired from a 35-year career in politics, media and government now lectures, writes and sings.

My father was a Florida activist 12/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:08pm]

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