Nearly 60 years ago, May 17, 1954, in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the segregation of white children from Negro children in the public schools solely on the bases of race was unconstitutional.
A decade later President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making it illegal to discriminate based on race at lunch counters, on buses and in other public places. In 1966 President Johnson nominated and the U.S. Senate confirmed Miami attorney C. Clyde Atkins to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Atkins was chief judge from 1977-1982 and remained on the court until his death in 1999.
An online University of Florida biography characterizes Judge Atkins as a champion of civil rights and a defender of the less fortunate who worked for the desegregation of public schools. Historian Arva Moore Parks McCabe agrees. She recalls that one of his most publicized cases was presiding over the desegregation of Dade County public schools beginning in 1969, with continuing jurisdiction for over 25 years.
In the 1970s, Arva Parks was a PTA president in Coconut Grove at the original George Washington Carver Junior High School. We met in 1974 at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (now History Miami). Many times during our 40-year friendship, Arva talked about the strategies used to get people from the black Grove, on the west side, and people from the white Grove, on the east side, to know each other. The goal was for parents, teachers and clergy to mobilize, to seek the best education for children.
Carver is now a middle school, and the current principal, Shelley Stroleny, welcomes children in five languages on the school’s website. According to her message, children study French, German, Italian or Spanish and their respective cultures at an in-depth level.
Several months ago principal Stroleny and the school family welcomed Atlanta resident Willie Frank Payne, a former student who returned after many decades. He is a 1941 graduate of West Grove’s Dade County Training School and G.W. Carver High School which is now Carver Middle School, a magnet school for international studies and education. Payne is the school’s 2014 Hall of Fame inductee.
In the auditorium before the induction ceremony, students presented the school’s history, incorporating interviews from pioneers. The interviews are a part of the Historic Black Church Oral History Film Project conducted by the University of Miami School of Law in partnership with Ransom Everglades School, the UM School of Communication, Otto G. Richter Library, George Washington Carver Alumni Association and the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance. The collaboration was intended to help educate a new generation of high school, college and graduate students about the crucial leadership role of historic black churches in Afro-Caribbean-American communities.
During the presentation, it was rewarding for me to watch the pioneers heartily applaud the student performance. Later, the students were attentive as the classes, 1941 through 1966, were called. Representatives stood proudly, recited each class motto and highlighted their collective years at Carver. Those in wheel chairs waved their hands as the students cheered. School spirit was readily felt as multiple generations and diverse cultures shared history in a way that was forbidden before the second half of the 20th century.
When it was time for the Hall of Fame ceremony, Thomas Sands, a social studies teacher and Student Council sponsor, gave the introduction. A member of a pioneer West Grove family, Sands attended middle school at Carver, 1974-75, then Ponce De Leon Middle before graduating from Coral Gables Senior High School and Florida A&M University.
Sands introduced the inductee, Willie Frank Payne, who as a Carver high student excelled in football, basketball and track. Payne was elected president and became salutatorian of his class. A biology major in college he also served in the Army. Payne earned a National Medical Foundation Grant completing his doctoral degree in neuroembryology at the University of Iowa. He taught at Morris Brown College for 50 years before retiring.
With spry steps to the podium, Willie Frank Payne, Ph.D., accepted Carver’s 2014 Hall of Fame Award. He recalled that many decades ago, only black students were allowed to be educated on the segregated campus. Despite inequalities in the educational system, he and others received the foundation and support that prepared them to become productive citizens. Previous Carver Hall of Famers include West Grove pioneers Dr. Dazelle Dean Simpson, first black medical doctor certified in pediatrics in Florida, and Florida’s first black astronaut, retired Navy Capt. Winston E. Scott.
While there have been major changes in society and the school program, the school’s historic auditorium and campus physically remain the same. It is programs like the Hall of Fame that provide opportunities for Carver’s students of the 20th century and students of the 21st century to share a common heritage and the love of their school.