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St. Pete’s last all-Black class, split by integration, stayed connected

Forced from Gibbs High, they graduated from other schools and later reunited as the “Classes of 1970.”
Members of the "Classes of 1970" in St. Petersburg pose for a group photo during a reunion on May 14, 2022, at the Club at Treasure Island. Attendees recalled being uprooted from all-Black Gibbs High during the 1969-70 school year and sent to predominantly white schools as part of a desegregation plan imposed on the Pinellas County school district.
Members of the "Classes of 1970" in St. Petersburg pose for a group photo during a reunion on May 14, 2022, at the Club at Treasure Island. Attendees recalled being uprooted from all-Black Gibbs High during the 1969-70 school year and sent to predominantly white schools as part of a desegregation plan imposed on the Pinellas County school district. [ HANNAH CRITCHFIELD | Times ]
Published May 17|Updated May 20

ST. PETERSBURG — Coming up from Perkins and Melrose elementary schools to 16th Street Middle, Cynthia Jenkins was part of a community that knew everyone, their telephone number, their mom and their aunt.

“That’s how we were,” said Jenkins, now 69. “We were so connected. And then after that we were disconnected.”

Fifty-three years ago, Pinellas County’s last segregated class was getting ready to graduate together. Gibbs High remained the district’s last predominantly Black high school — until many of Jenkins’ classmates received notices that they were being transferred to predominantly white schools for their senior year. The school district was under court order to desegregate schools.

Jenkins was fortunate enough to stay, but her classmates scrambled to use relatives’ addresses so they could remain zoned at Gibbs. Those who had to leave wept, and she wept with them. At their new schools, her friends were ridiculed, called racist names and treated unequally. Their grades fell.

“We had high hopes and lofty ideas for our futures despite knowledge there were individuals who did not hold those ideas,” Jenkins said. “We stand 52 years later still going strong.”

Over the weekend, the Classes of 1970 celebrated their 50th high school reunion, delayed by the pandemic. All classmates who began their high school journey at Gibbs were welcomed back, despite formally graduating from St. Petersburg High, Lakewood High, Northeast High and Bishop Barry High, now St. Petersburg Catholic High.

Jenkins, elected class president in 2014, put together a theme of “Where We Came From.”

Cynthia Jenkins, elected in 2014 as the class president of the Gibbs High Class of 1970, welcomes her classmates at their overdue 50th reunion at the Club at Treasure Island on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
Cynthia Jenkins, elected in 2014 as the class president of the Gibbs High Class of 1970, welcomes her classmates at their overdue 50th reunion at the Club at Treasure Island on Saturday, May 14, 2022. [ Courtesy of Cynthia Jenkins ]

The group’s marathon celebration over the weekend began Thursday with a city of St. Petersburg proclamation honoring the “Classes of 1970 Day.”

“I’m here today to recognize a very special group of people,” the city’s first Black mayor, Ken Welch, said of the county’s last Black class. “A group of friends who began their educational careers together, when sent to different schools as part of the effort to desegregate our schools … they chose to remain forever bonded.”

Welch, too, had been part of the change as a first-grader in the last segregated class at Melrose Elementary.

“These are friendships to which we should all aspire,” the mayor said.

The weekend peaked with a banquet Saturday night at the Club at Treasure Island. Authors, educators, business owners and veterans gathered from out of town and locally for the regal blue-and-gold affair. They dazzled in sparkly floor-length gowns and sharp suits.

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“I feel as if I’m at the prom,” Jenkins said, welcoming the crowd. “You guys look marvelous.”

About 65 alumni and their loved ones reminisced over cheesecake and tunes from yesteryear.

Robert Starling, Jr., recalled what it was like to play baseball in Gulfport, the voice of his father ringing in his ears, reminding him to get out of town well before dark. In a childhood where so many doors were closed and sundown policies made much of Pinellas County unsafe, his all-Black school was a haven.

“It was like one big family, especially because you couldn’t go to a lot of places,” Starling, 70, said. “None of us knew they were gonna force integration like that.”

His classmate Darrell Macon remembers the day teachers at Gibbs passed out the forms that asked his home address. He didn’t know then that his answer would tear him away from the friends he’d known since kindergarten, from teachers who fought to give them a quality education, filling in the gaps left behind by missing pages in the raggedy textbooks the school received.

“It was a big deal we split — it was really hard for me,” said Macon, 70. “Even though schools were being integrated, we wanted to stay together.”

Those who stayed behind noticed their homerooms weren’t filled with new students.

“For the most part, Black kids integrated white schools,” said Dr. Cynthia White, 69, who managed to stay at Gibbs through a special waiver. “Black students bore the burden.”

Over the years, members of the classes of 1970 stayed in touch. They were neighbors. They went to the same churches. They reconvened at Gibbs school events.

“Even though we were separated, we still had our community,” said Macon, who was sent to St. Petersburg High as part of desegregation his senior year. Still, he went to all the games, dances and, of course, Gibbs’ prom — a big deal.

“My goal at the time was to go to as many Gibbs events as I could,” Macon said.

After graduation, they wrote letters, spoke over dormitory payphones and made sure to see each other when they were back in St. Petersburg for holidays. They continued to meet for reunions.

Toward the end of the night, alumni lined up for a photo with two gold balloons forming a “70″ to commemorate their graduation year. A photographer had to use a panorama to capture everyone in the frame.

“To tell you the truth, I’m really excited about this because most of us are 70,” said Margie Collins, 69, who in her senior year was crowned Miss Gibbs, which she described as similar to prom queen, but more like school queen. “We don’t know what the future holds.”

Some were noticeably absent. A poem called “Empty Chair” was read and four women lit candles in honor of their classmates gone too soon.

“It’s nice to be here, because a lot of my friends are not,” said Collie Nelson, 70. “A lot of them are in nursing homes. To have survived to this point is really special.”

A slideshow featured yearbook photos and shots of beloved teachers from the students’ earlier years at Gibbs.

A DJ played as childhood friends shuffled onto the dance floor.

Once again, they’d found a way back to each other.

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