The memories are fading now, but Gary Range still remembers that first day of third grade, walking down Northwest 58th Street to his new school with the eyes of all Miami upon him.
There were police and angry crowds — blacks and whites — on either side of the street as he and three other black children approached the entrance to Orchard Villa Elementary. Inside, for the first time in Florida history, they would be black students sitting in a previously all-white school.
“There was a big crowd out there. The memory I have of it was that it was just crazy,” said Range, now 62. “But once we got inside it was cool. We didn’t have problems.”
On that fall morning in 1959, four years after the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down the “separate but equal” doctrine and ruled segregated education unconstitutional, Miami-Dade schools took the first small steps toward integrating schools.
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It was a token move that would take years to ramp up. But 60 years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the first day of school for a small boy marked the beginning of huge changes that would forever shape education and race relations throughout the state. It was a tumultuous era that, while more peaceful than in other parts of the South, nevertheless included plenty of fights, death threats, protests and politics.
“We went through with it and we caught hell for a long time,” said G. Holmes Braddock, a retired school board member who served from 1962 to 2000. “But we got through it.”
Today, Miami is among the most diverse regions and school systems in the country, with black and Hispanic students comprising more than 90 percent of the student body. But at the time of the Brown decision, Miami was largely white or black — segregated down to the beaches, sports teams and bathrooms.
Schools were no different, remembers John Glover, who graduated from Booker T. Washington Senior High in 1957. Glover would go on to work as a teacher at all-black Miami Northwestern High in the ’60s before leaving for the FBI.
He credits his success to the school they called “the university of Booker T. Washington” because it would draw students from around Florida due to the lack of black high schools. But the school’s books were still secondhand, and his championship football team still played in hand-me-down leather cleats with spikes that poked through the soles.
In 1953, M. Athalie Range — Gary’s mother, who would go on to become Miami’s first black city commissioner — filled the all-white school board auditorium with black parents to protest conditions at the old Liberty City Elementary, where she said there were just 13 toilets for 1,200 students and no lunchroom.
The Brown ruling “was something that we celebrated, something that was extremely positive,” Glover said.
Despite the 1954 high court ruling, change in the classroom came slow. In Miami, the school board didn’t move to integrate schools until 1959, after lawsuits were filed and some parents, including Range, fought to send their children to the all-white Orchard Villa in Liberty City.
Gary Range said his family had just purchased a home in what was then still a largely white neighborhood surrounding the school. But the district, which often bused black students to faraway segregated schools, wanted to do the same with 7-year-old Gary.
“My mother told them no. I ended up having to go down to the school board to take an exam, and I passed up to the third grade,” he said.
But in a matter of weeks every single white family had withdrawn their children from the school, save one student, forcing the school board to transfer in hundreds of black children and an all-black staff. Five years later, there were only 32 integrated schools serving 2,500 black students.
And opponents of integration didn’t just sit idly by as schools were desegregated.
“So many of the black parents, understandably, they were afraid,” said Mamie Pinder, who in 1963 became one of the first black teachers to join an integrated faculty at Allapattah Elementary. “Every week we were used to having anywhere from three or four bomb threats.”
Braddock, the board member, said opposition to integration was intense. “I had my mailbox blown up and threats on my life.”
Progress was slow. Through the ’60s and into the ’70s some black schools remained segregated. At Northwestern, for example, current School Board member Wilbert Holloway never had a white classmate. By the time he graduated in 1966, the only white person the Miami native had ever encountered in public education was his 10th grade geometry teacher.
“It seemed like he was a little nervous, but we were just as nervous with him in the classroom,” said Holloway, who remembers his time at Northwestern fondly.
It wasn’t until the federal courts got involved in 1969 that the school system took stronger steps to desegregate. Under a court-approved plan, the school board agreed to reduce the number of black students attending all-black schools to 24 percent. A 1970 order makes only passing mention of the “recurring problem” of 50,000 “Spanish-speaking” students.
To do that, the district rezoned schools, “paired” and “grouped” dozens more, created magnet schools to draw white students into black schools and vice-versa, and at points bused students to break up one-race schools.
The district’s plans didn’t always go smoothly. But students who attended desegregated schools say today that they’re better for it. Retha Boone-Fye, now the executive director of Miami-Dade County’s Black Affairs Advisory Board, became one of just a few dozen black students at Miami Jackson Senior High in 1964.
She said some white students actually helped her and other blacks force a segregated lunch counter to change its policy and allow blacks to eat at the location. Other whites, however, transferred out of the school in protest.
“Previously we’d been told that if we went to white schools that they were smarter and bigger, and better and faster. It was then that I found out there were smart people and there were dumb people, in both races,” Boone-Fye said.
Ellen Elias, today a teacher at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High in Northeast Miami-Dade, went to school with black classmates for the first time when in 1971 she attended John F. Kennedy Junior High as a seventh-grader. In an over-crowded science class one day, a black girl named Lorraine called her a “kike” when she went to the blackboard.
The two girls agreed to fight after school in a field. But after they wrestled to exhaustion on the ground, their anger subsided. And while Elias said black and white students remained culturally isolated, they became friends, and Lorraine even signed her yearbook and visited her when she spent a week in the hospital.
“Her father had a flower shop, and every day in the hospital I got fresh, yellow roses because yellow is my favorite color,” said Elias, who said the experience has shaped her life. “It was just incredible ... . I think part of it made me who I am in terms of how I treat people.”
A federal judge first declared Miami-Dade’s dual school system a thing of the past in 1971, but the district continued to work — and sometimes struggle — toward diversity in its schools. In 1977, Johnny Jones became Miami-Dade’s first black superintendent. And in 1979, Jones appointed Willie Wright as the first black principal of the largely white Gulfstream Elementary in South Miami-Dade, though Wright said parents swiftly tried to have him removed.
“They went downtown to protest. But when they found out the superintendent was black that sort of took the steam out of it,” he said.
The federal courts continued to monitor Dade schools until 2001, when Judge William Dimitrouleas declared that court supervision was no longer needed. Today, some who experienced the integration era, like Boon-Fye and Braddock, say there’s still work to do.
“Kids today don’t quite understand the struggle their parents had to go through. And I think that’s a good and a bad thing,” said Boone-Fye. “The good part about is that they don’t have that background to hold them back. The bad part is they don’t remember to appreciate it in the end.”
WLRN reporter Sammy Mack contributed to this story, which also includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald. Sign up by going to MiamiHerald.com/insight.