Saturday, December 16, 2017
Opinion

Lorraine Leland led efforts to give Dunedin African-Americans a better start in life

As recently reported by this newspaper, the affordable housing development in Dunedin referred to for years as the "Lorraine Leland project" finally will move forward on almost 3 vacant acres on Lorraine Leland Street between Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues.

Who was Lorraine Leland and why was a street named for her? Learning the answer to that question involved a bittersweet journey into Florida and Dunedin history.

Born on Sept. 15, 1897, Lorraine Scanlan, a white woman, spent most of her life in an America that was racially segregated. Brought up in relative comfort in the middle South and Midwest, she married Hubert Leland of Kentucky and they moved to Pinellas County, where Mr. Leland promoted a new development called Pasadena Estates in St. Petersburg.

In 1929 they left for New York, where Mr. Leland joined a brokerage firm. In 1942 they returned to Pinellas, this time to Dunedin (perhaps because of Mrs. Leland's brother, Charles Townsend Scanlan, who managed the Fenway Hotel on Edgewater Drive).

Mrs. Leland had weathered the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II, but perhaps her greatest challenge came in the 1960s over the effects of "separate but equal" education in Pinellas County.

Before that decade, she appeared to have led a life of teas, dinner parties and church socials. Nearly invisible in her world were the residents of Dunedin's so-called colored quarters.

That part of town, home to several hundred people, was about 18 acres roughly bounded by what is now the Pinellas Trail on the west, the Coca-Cola plant to the north, Skinner Boulevard on the south and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue (formerly Highland Avenue) on the east. It was settled in the 1880s by blacks seeking work on the Orange Belt Railroad.

Mrs. Leland would learn that the local public school for "coloreds" in Dunedin, Chase Memorial Elementary School, also was overlooked and fell short of general standards. Originally organized in 1915 as Washington School and Social Center, the school, at 1114 Douglas Ave., was for blacks only because Florida's 1885 Constitution mandated segregation of blacks and whites in public schools.

Later named after its founder and first principal, Almira Chase, the two-story, two-teacher elementary school was one of four in Pinellas (the others being in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs) that formed the "backbone of education for black residents," relates a history of the Pinellas County school district.

Integration of Pinellas public schools slowly began in 1963 and the School Board closed Chase Memorial. It was soon evident that Chase students were entering previously all-white schools at a serious disadvantage.

According to Mrs. Leland's written account of the origin of the Dunedin Educational and Enrichment Program (DEEP), she was "called and told that the parents of the colored children would like some help for their children . . . and asked if I would be Coordinator for a project of this kind."

Mrs. Leland attended a meeting of parents, teachers and church officials. She wrote that because she felt "deeply that the solution to many problems is education," she agreed to "accept this responsibility."

And a large responsibility it was. With no funding for the project, she had to find a furnished location for the remedial tutoring she was planning, recruit a sufficient number of people qualified to tutor, and secure classroom supplies.

The Rev. Mac James Williams, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, "who was helpful in every way," she said, offered the church recreational hall for classes. (The School Board later made Chase available to her on the condition that she form a nonprofit, which she did.)

Dunedin and San Jose elementary schools provided classroom materials for her program. Most important, she was able to recruit 14 retired teachers to volunteer their skills and services. Ever modest, Mrs. Leland attributed these successes to fate being with her. The program opened in March 1964.

In addition to remedial work, the program eventually offered arts and crafts, "home demonstration," sewing and cooking, lectures, educational movies and field trips around Pinellas and the Tampa Bay area. There was something for almost every day of the week.

Fortunately, as time went by, the need for DEEP lessened and the program gradually shrank to the point where it closed in 1977. Mrs. Leland was saddened — "I deeply regret having to leave the little ones," she said in a 1977 newspaper article, but she understood that "with doors now open (to blacks)," DEEP "wore out its usefulness."

Mrs. Leland received various awards and recognitions for her work with DEEP and in 1981, the city of Dunedin, which had paid the utility bills at Chase while DEEP was active, named the street between Douglas and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. avenues after her.

Lorraine Leland died on April 22, 1998 at Mease Manor in Dunedin. There was no obituary, but resident Vivien Skinner Grant wrote a tribute to Mrs. Leland in the newsletter of the Dunedin Historical Society.

How is she remembered by residents of the neighborhood where she worked? James Brown, a retired military serviceman who grew up there, initially searched for words when asked about Mrs. Leland.

Then he gave a broad smile and said, "Lorraine Leland, she stood tall."

Julie Scales is a Dunedin city commissioner. Her sources for this column included a history of the Dunedin Educational and Enrichment Program written by Lorraine Leland, a 1977 Tampa Bay Times article, and a history of the Pinellas County School District.

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