Romano: In 1971, Confederate flag was at heart of St. Petersburg school's painful conflict

Kenneth City Police Chief Ruell Webster dispersed a group of about 20 youths, some with the now-banned Confederate flag, at Dixie Hollins High School one morning in 1971.
Kenneth City Police Chief Ruell Webster dispersed a group of about 20 youths, some with the now-banned Confederate flag, at Dixie Hollins High School one morning in 1971.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

Two towns, two stories, two battles. Separated by miles and decades, and yet connected somehow through a bygone symbol and the passion it still incites.

The Confederate flag controversy playing out in Charleston today is not indigenous to South Carolina, and it is not novel by any standard.

Just ask the long-ago teenagers who were part of Pinellas County's first integrated class of students at Dixie Hollins High a couple of generations ago.

The kids who fought with fists and wounded with words. The kids who saw cops on the school's rooftop with rifles and saw adults inciting violence from across the street. The kids who saw football games and school days canceled for fear of race riots.

Just ask them, more than 40 years later, about the lessons of flying a flag indelibly linked, like it or not, to yesterday's oppression and today's hate.

"I understand it represents heritage to some people. I get that,'' said St. Petersburg Realtor Lou Brown, who was among the first African-Americans bused to Dixie in 1971.

"But what they don't see is what it means to me. People used that flag to try to intimidate us. They used it as a symbol of hate. People driving up and down that street with their Easy Rider rifle racks in their trucks and the flag waving out the window, yelling 'Go home n-----s' as soon as we got off the bus.''

Once the Pinellas County School Board voted to integrate schools, there were two fairly safe bets at the start of the 1971-72 academic year:

No. 1, there would be racial disturbances and, No. 2, Dixie Hollins would be in the middle.

The school, named after the county's first superintendent, was surrounded by working-class neighborhoods in Kenneth City and drew a large portion of students from Pinellas Park, a city that once boasted a sign declaring "No N-----s after dark'' on a main thoroughfare.

Like Charleston in 2015, the problems of Dixie Hollins in 1971 were much larger than a misappropriated flag. They had to do with parents angry about enforced busing. They had to do with attitudes, prejudices, slights, traditions, economics and rumors.

A group known as Parents Against Forced Busing had called for a boycott at Pinellas schools on the first day of classes in '71. The boycott was a dud, and the group seemed in danger of losing momentum when opportunity arrived disguised as a flag.

Back then, Dixie was a school of more than 2,500 students, many of whom had never sat next to a black classmate. The culture shock had to be even worse for the 170 or so kids who were pulled out of the previously all-black Gibbs High district to attend a school where the fight song longed for "the days of cotton.'' Where the symbols of the Confederacy were all around, and where the school mascot looked like a plantation owner from the Deep South.

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One week into the new school year, after hearing the concerns of black students, principal Kenneth Watson announced over the school's intercom that the Confederate battle flag would no longer be allowed on campus.

The next morning, dozens of parents were already protesting across the street with flags in hand. By the following week, fights were breaking out as soon as buses arrived in the predawn light. Every day there was a new tally of suspensions and arrests. A sheriff's deputy was stabbed, and several students were taken to hospitals after fights.

School days were shortened so there would be no lunch period, and classroom doors were locked, with the county superintendent imposing what he described as "martial law.''

For some at Dixie, the furor was inexplicable. Even heartbreaking. The rebel flag, as it was known in school, did not represent racism or slavery or the Civil War to these white kids. It meant pep rallies and football games and neighborhood spirit.

"I don't think we had any resentment over what the black kids were saying, I think it was more confusion,'' said Penny Powers, who was on a biracial student committee in '71. "That confusion escalated to terror pretty quickly. Once the parents came in with their pre-formed opinions, everything took off.

"I didn't think it was about the flag then, and I don't think it's about the flag now. That's just a symbol. I think what needs to change is how we treat each other. Making sure the legacy that was handed to us isn't passed on to the next generation.''

The disturbances at Dixie would ebb and flow for the rest of the school year. They would, in fact, creep up again with more campus riots in 1976.

So what does it say, all these years later, that we're still debating the legacy, the impact and our interpretations of a flag born of some antiquated era?

Some would argue that it represents our insensitivity as a culture, while others would complain it is indicative of our oversensitivity.

As someone who grew up around the corner from the school and can still remember the excitement of the band playing Dixie as it marched toward the football stadium on Friday nights, whatever fond memories I had of that flag are long gone.

The flag I once knew was hijacked by those who would use it as a weapon. As a statement. As a replacement for words they dare not say aloud.

"It was a terrible time,'' said Jeffrey Etter, a small-business owner in St. Petersburg who was also on Dixie's biracial committee in 1971. "Every kid who went to Dixie still carries a little bit of that era with them today.

"For some, it bred hate. For some, it bred compassion. But no one was left untouched by what happened at that school that year.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.