James Feazell, 73, is renowned for his work as a teacher and athletic coach at Largo High during the early years of integration, as well as his work as a successful minority recruiter for Pinellas County Schools.
Over the years, he established the first African American history class at Largo High and helped develop a human relations council there. And in the African American community, he worked to ensure children had access to sports and recreational programs close to their homes.
He is a past recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award from the National Education Association as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Award from the Pinellas County Commission for 50 years of service to the community. Feazell’s most recent award came from Largo Mayor Woody Brown two weeks ago, when he was the 2020 honoree during Black History Month.
Feazell grew up in segregated Pinellas County, graduating from Pinellas High in 1965 and went on to attend Bethune-Cookman University, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Truman State University. He has lived in Ridgecrest — the historically African American community in an unincorporated area west of Largo — since he was a young teen. He married his childhood sweetheart, Gwen, whose family lived four houses down the street. They have four adult children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He has lived in Ridgecrest — the historically African American community in an unincorporated area west of Largo — since he was a young teen. He married his childhood sweetheart, Gwen, whose family lived four houses down the street. They have four adult children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
These days, Feazell will tell you simply he is “enjoying retirement.’’ But don’t be surprised to see him in the office at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, where he is a deacon, or at the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA during a board of directors meeting for the Bridging the Achievement Gap Program. He and his wife established the tutoring program in 2003, and it has helped well over 1,000 in-need students.
Feazell recently spoke to Times staff writer Piper Castillo about his childhood under Jim Crow, the presidential election and a few tips on how to raise successful students. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you want to tell young people right now, when it comes to the presidential election and voting?
Vote. Know about the candidates. Be informed about the issues and where they stand. Get involved and vote for the one that is best for you. Do not vote for the party, vote for your principles. And also, don’t give up. I’d like to tell them to follow Proverbs 3:5-6.
When did you move to Ridgecrest?
My family moved to St. Petersburg from Mississippi first. And then my mother, who kept hearing Goldie Thompson on WTMP-AM, saying there were homes in a place called the Ridgecrest subdivision for sale for $9,999, decided we should move up here. It was a good place to live, but there were not the same opportunities for youth out here that black youth had in St. Pete. There were very little, if any, recreational activities.There was no Boy Scouts or football, and when kids — boys — don’t have things to do, that’s when they get into trouble.
But you didn’t get in trouble. What kept you on track?
I had a strong mother and then along the way, I had outstanding teachers that kept me on track. And at that time, here in this neighborhood, teachers and other professionals lived beside us.
For example, Joseph Carwise (a 36-year Pinellas educator and the first African American to serve on Clearwater’s City Commission) and Lillie McGarrah (principal of Largo Central) lived down the street from me. It’s important to me to say that I have been very blessed. I did not pay to go to school. I applied myself, but I had people and prayer in my life.
When did you start seeing more opportunity in Ridgecrest?
It happened over time. When I came here, there was love here, support, but not a lot of what would give people opportunity. There were a few of us younger ones, Tasker Beale and myself, and others, who tried to bring more opportunity. Tasker and I were two who went to Bethune Cookman. When we started there, we learned right away the motto: “Enter to learn, depart to serve.”
They emphasized going back to your community and for you to do what you can to upgrade it. So we evolved and we worked with those older leaders who had started things, to make improvement. This includes J.T. Gardner, Rev. Steve Lumpkin and Joe Miles. And I always came back in the summer. That included working for Lenore Spivey, who started the Community Service Foundation..
What was it like to be a young teacher during the early years of integration?
I had offers at both Clearwater and Largo High. I chose the job at Largo High because I knew so many students since I had been an athlete and grew up in the area, and Pinellas High had been 7th through 12th grade before it closed. So a lot of the kids in 1968 who moved to Largo High remembered me from my days as a student.
I felt since I knew so many kids, it benefited everyone for me to teach there, and we had a wonderful principal who supported us, Gene Chizik.
How do you think the Pinellas County Schools system is doing right now?
I’ve been retired since 2003 so I really can’t say too much, but I think they are making a good effort to help. Parents however should not ever totally depend upon Pinellas County Schools to do it all. The parents are the first educators in the kid’s life. I always believed that ... don’t expect the school system to do it all.
What is different now is the black community. At the time when I was growing up, blacks all had to live in the same neighborhood, and although this was wrong because of segregation, this also came with good. We had what we called “the village makers,” those professionals already in our community that were telling us we need to strive to be the best. With integration, I sometimes say, we got what we wanted but we lost what we had. Our neighborhoods changed, and people left.
So how do you feel when you think back to Pinellas High? So many places operated under Jim Crow. What do you think of those years?
At Bethune Cookman we heard, “Things don’t make people. Things don’t make us.” And it is true. Also, at Pinellas High, we had great teachers. So it is about perspective. I did not want to be kept out of anywhere, but the following generations after integration have lost something very positive because we lost that neighborhood structure.
Do you like the way your community is still set up as unincorporated, not under a city government?
My contribution in the community is with education, working with young people, helping people get jobs, youth sports and morality through the church. It is not with government so again I don’t want to say much.
That being said, however, when leaders of the city of Largo approached us about incorporating a while ago, the community chose not to incorporate. It is rooted in the hurt of the past. Your past cannot be ignored. There were things done in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that hurt people.
Why didn’t we get street lights from the city or get help for kids who did not know how to swim? Why didn’t the city offer library services? Why weren’t you visible about things people needed in this area. If you were sincere, why did you wait until the federal and county governments got us up to par (with infrastructure) and then ask us about annexation.
Frequently, I hear people say that they have never seen this country as divided as it is now. Do you agree?
That is true. First of all, there are people who are not genuine to who they really are. They say things and do things contrary to good sense.
But what about the division of Jim Crow or the Civil War?
Back during Jim Crow, you knew how to stay away from hate groups. Now they are disguised and more hypocritical. They say one thing and do another.
What would you encourage individuals to do to keep the country moving in a positive direction?
Well, I can say that everyone needs to go by the Preamble to the Constitution. Young people have to be involved and they have to be given hope that their involvement will make a difference.