The fight to desegregate Pinellas County schools came with a painful sacrifice on Palmetto Street in Clearwater.
Following a federal court order in 1965, the school district began transferring students from the all-Black Pinellas High into classrooms of their white peers. But no white students were sent to the institution so beloved that its song began with: “Dear old Pinellas High School, you’re the world to me.”
Instead, the district closed Pinellas High in 1968.
In the decades since, the building has hosted a series of schools under various names, most recently Clearwater Intermediate. Pinellas High pride has lived on in class reunions and alumni get-togethers, most of them held off the campus that was no longer theirs.
Now, 55 years after the closure, Pinellas High alumni have succeeded in their bid to revive the school’s legacy in the place where it once thrived. As Clearwater Intermediate started preparing last year to expand with high school grades, it needed a new name.
Pinellas County Schools received dozens of submissions, but the school board on March 21 unanimously selected Pinellas High Innovation with its nod to history and focus on the future.
”Injustice was served on us with the integration process because we didn’t ask to get rid of our school, we just wanted equality and equity,” said Isay Gulley, a 1965 graduate and former CEO of Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services. “And I asked: What will it take for us to come home again?”
A great loss
The city’s first public school for African Americans opened in 1914 on Madison Avenue and was renamed Pinellas Junior/Senior High School in 1934 when it added high school grades. Pinellas High moved to a new building at 1220 Palmetto St. in 1954 and was the only place for Black students living north of Ulmerton Road to attend seventh through 12th grades.
Teachers were role models and motivators who pushed students to achieve despite the injustice they experienced living in the segregated county, said 1967 graduate Joyce Russell, who went on to a career in social work and retired as African American liaison for Hillsborough County government.
Growing up, Russell and classmates could get jobs cleaning rooms on Clearwater Beach but weren’t allowed on the sand. At 12 years old in 1964, alumna Barbara Sorey-Love remembers using the restroom at Brown Brothers Dairy Store on Cleveland Street. On her way out, the clerk warned the child: “We don’t let your kind use the restroom,” Sorey-Love recalls.
But at Pinellas High, Russell said, “you felt accepted for who you were, and you were loved for who you were, and that went a long way to kids achieving and coming out of that school having a better life.”
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Teachers shared meals at students’ homes and held conferences with parents on Sunday at church, said Arlington Nunn, who taught business education and typing.
Pinellas High enabled students to get college scholarships and was ahead of its time for job preparation, with certification courses like dry cleaning, shoe repair and cosmetology, said 1965 graduate James Feazell.
“They were dedicated to getting the most out of us,” said Feazell, who went on to teach at Largo High for 23 years and served as a recruiting specialist for the county before retiring in 2003.
A lawsuit filed against the school district by six African American parents assisted by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund resulted in a federal judge ordering the elimination of racially segregated schools in 1965.
But activists like North Greenwood businessperson Talmadge Rutledge, president of the Clearwater branch of the NAACP, fought to keep Pinellas High open and integrated.
“We didn’t understand why some white students couldn’t have gone to Pinellas High,” said Sorey-Love, who attended the school for seventh and eighth grades but was transferred to predominantly white John F. Kennedy Junior High for ninth grade in 1966. “To me, that would have been equity.”
On Jan. 3, 1968, Talmadge led a group of 20 protesters to stand in front of school bus No. 121 as it passed Pinellas High to take students to Kennedy.
He was fined $35 and sentenced to a year of probation, and the school closed that year. The loss has been felt ever since.
“In closing it, we lost a part of our identity,” Russell said. “They lost a sense of power that they had in that our principals were Black, our chairmen in our departments were Black, our band was one of the best bands in the state. And now you’re thrown into a situation where all of that has been lost.”
Its closure also preceded a decline in the North Greenwood neighborhood, once a hub of Black entrepreneurship. As businesses and residents left, blight creeped in.
“It’s like the saying goes, once goes the schools, there goes the neighborhood,” Sorey-Love said.
Last summer, Sorey-Love, an author and community advocate, had a meeting with Clearwater officials and school district administrators about the effort to address forgotten Black cemeteries in the city. Afterward, she overheard Associate Superintendent Clint Herbic and Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP President Zebbie Atkinson discussing the upcoming rebranding of Clearwater Intermediate.
At the time, the district was preparing to expand the school to 12th grade, up from a model with grades five through eight. District officials wanted to add career and technical education courses for fields like mechanics, construction, aerospace and more.
Soon, Sorey-Love and Gulley, the 1965 graduate, met Herbic and Clearwater Intermediate Principal Ryan Green to discuss erecting a historical marker at the school.
By September, Gulley and Sorey-Love organized a meeting of about 100 former students, teachers and supporters in the gym, where they discussed the renaming effort.
“There were tears, there was singing,” Green recalled.
Knowing that one of the new names being considered was Clearwater Innovation, Gulley suggested Pinellas High Innovation to acknowledge the school’s history and its service to the north county area. The “high” is not only to reflect the grade levels but to indicate the high achievement of its predecessors and the students to come, alumni said.
As the name was presented to the school board for a final vote last month, about 20 alumni were there to see it happen. Many more were elsewhere “praying for us,” Gulley said.
“My heart is just overjoyed,” said Berta Bryant, who taught English at Pinellas High from 1961 to 1968 and followed updates from her home in California.
The name took effect last month, and Green, the principal, is working with alumni to finalize a historical marker and a rebranding of the school. Renovations to the library will include a historical center to document the story of Pinellas High.
“This learning institution that meant so much to them, what a great model,” Green said. “I want this building and this school to serve the community in a similar way. It’s not a building people drive by, it’s providing programs and opportunities for learners that really genuinely meet the needs.”
And on June 17, alumni will gather in the gym, some for the first time in 55 years, for a gala with dancing, fellowship and a meal to celebrate.
“It will be coming home,” Gulley said.