Demetrius Jackson was still in a suspended state of jubilation days after he and his Booker T. Washington High School football teammates won the state championship and cemented their rank as No. 1 in the United States.
Students, teachers, coaches and staff at the school walked around on a cushion of pride last week following the Tornadoes’ 40-21 victory over the Jacksonville Bolles. The school’s yellow walls glowed in the Miami sunshine. Booker T., which has been at the heart of the city’s history since 1926, had again distinguished itself, this time as the undefeated, undisputed very best in the entire country.
“It doesn’t seem real yet,” said Jackson, a senior who plans to accept a scholarship to the University of Miami. “But we worked so hard for this exact goal: Leave a mark. Set an example for the younger kids, and, in a neighborhood known for negative stereotypes, do something positive.”
The title is symbolic of the school’s enduring status as beacon of Overtown, despite attempts to destroy or close it, despite the construction of a jail across the street, despite the encroachment of ghastly stacks of highway overpasses that slashed through the central city half a century ago and left Booker T. in an echo chamber of rumbling, whooshing traffic noise.
The school survived the hurricane of 1926 and bombings by the Ku Klux Klan to become the first school in South Florida to provide education through the 12th grade for black students. It withstood Jim Crow laws, the tumult of desegregation, conversion to a middle school, the population decline, unemployment struggles and high crime rate of the surrounding community, the McDuffie riots and an F rating.
Among visitors to the school during Overtown’s heyday were Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall and Muhammad Ali. Nat “King” Cole used to teach impromptu piano lessons. Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson dropped by. The list of alumni is a who’s who of prominent doctors, businessmen, judges, politicians, educators, entertainers, journalists and athletes, including former Miami Dolphin Larry Little.
Today, Booker T. is projected to receive a B grade, and its graduation rate of 80 percent is better than the county, state and national average.
“Winning is contagious,” said Principal William Aristide, who has directed the school’s academic turnaround. “When I took this job four years ago we were the lowest-performing school in Florida in the ZIP code with the lowest socioeconomic status. Colleagues asked me, ‘Why are you going there?’ But I saw the opportunity to revive a great tradition at a school that not only raises the self-esteem of its students but of the whole area. It has that kind of power and reach.”
After the original building was torn down and a new high school campus opened in 1999, alumni insisted on keeping the old address: 1200 Northwest 6th Avenue. A replica of the original stone entrance archway stands in a courtyard.
“There was quite a bit of controversy about the address because that entire street was removed,” said Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Booker T. Class of 1960. “Sometimes people get lost trying to find the school. But once they do, they never forget it.”
It’s true that visitors to Booker T. find themselves charmed by the place and the people who inhabit it. Through the generations a sense of family has been preserved. Remarkable stories keep emerging.
“Our students possess incredible determination,” said history teacher Jack Hart, who lives in Palmetto Bay and commutes past affluent suburban schools on the way to the job he loves. “They face violence and tough odds, which is why they see so clearly the value of education. They’re here until 8-9 p.m. studying, participating in activities and sports. This is a warm haven.”
Hart hears from graduates who had to raise siblings and take care of addict parents and are now in college, sleeping in their own bed for the first time. One of his students, David Green, won a Gates Millennium Scholarship last year. Eight percent of Booker T.’s students are homeless, including one girl who became pregnant. Her teachers threw her a baby shower.
“My students inspire me,” said Dina Lewis, who teaches Freshman Experience and reading classes. “They’re so humble. This is like a home, with lots of big brothers and sisters pushing and guiding each other.”
Lewis’ connection with Booker T. dates back to her great-grandfather, George “Pop”Lewis Sr., the first black pharmacist in Miami. He owned People’s Pharmacy, which eventually became People’s Barbeque.
“Pop used to give free food to Booker T. students if they sat and read the Miami Herald,”said Lewis, who worked at the restaurant. “One of our cooks remembered students helping out by loading the dishwasher and freezer.”
Giving back is a way of life for Booker T. kids, who typically log massive service hours at nearby Camillus House, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Overtown Youth Center and Frederick Douglass Elementary.
“Many kids volunteer and don’t even realize it because it’s just part of who they are,”Hart said as the sound of Christmas carols drifted from the band room.
Jackson, 19, is an ordained minister who teaches Sunday school at One Way Tabernacle, and he helps the elderly by doing household chores and taking them on walks.
In turn, school alumni provide financial assistance with pre-game meals for sports teams and the marching band or help defray the cost of the homecoming dance, Grad Night, prom, yearbooks and caps and gowns. They give out scholarships and holiday gift certificates. Athletes have also received aid to pay grocery or utility bills or purchase the dress shirts and ties they must wear on Mondays and on road trips from the No Fly Zone foundation created by graduate Brandon Harris, a defensive back for the Houston Texans and one of football coach Tim“Ice” Harris’ three sons, all of whom played for the Tornadoes.
“We have 25 seniors, and we expect all 25 to go to college, get their degrees, come back home and serve the community in some way,” said Harris, who grew up in the section of Overtown known as The Swamp, raised by his stern, Bible-quoting grandmother. “Football allows me to sell that vision.”
Football is a unifier. A convoy of cars and buses filled with Tornado fans traveled to Orlando for the state final, where inner-city Booker T. beat 11-time state champ Bolles, a private prep and boarding school.
Expectations have always been high, said Agnes Morton, 75, Booker T. Class of 1955.
“The school is the seat of intellectual activity in the community,” Morton said. “College was the rule. If your parents couldn’t afford to send you to college, the churches held fundraisers, and they’d sell everything from clothing to conch fritters to make money.”
Morton, a descendant of Miami’s Bahamian pioneers, grew up in Overtown when it was a robust community with 150 businesses, including four movie theaters, a half-dozen hotels, a hospital and its own black police force and courthouse. She was a member of the school chorus, and remembers when singer Lena Horne came to visit. Morton received her nursing degree from Florida A&M. Her father was one of many homeowners displaced in the mid-1960s when highway construction cut through Overtown and changed the area forever.
“Some of us are still grieving the loss of what we had in Overtown,” she said. “But the school remains as a legacy, and my love for it is immeasurable.”
Loyalty runs deep. The Class of 1949 holds monthly meetings. The alumni association honors Living Legends annually, and its theme for February’s Black History Month is “The Apple Does Not Fall Far From the Tree,” when it will recognize those with generational ties.
“We want to perpetuate our rich cultural heritage,” said association president Roberta Thompson Daniels, Class of 1963, a retired Miami-Dade Public Schools administrator and adjunct Miami-Dade College professor. She was instrumental in the lobbying effort to reopen Booker T. as a high school after nearly three decades as a middle school.
Fields’ grandparents, who were of Bahamian, Barbadian and Haitian ancestry, settled in Overtown — then known as Colored Town — in 1903.
“My grandmother had relatives in Coconut Grove, but she considered that to be the sticks,” Fields said.
Fields’ mother, uncles and aunts were Booker T. graduates. Two of her uncles who became doctors also taught science at the school. Another uncle taught math and her mother taught dance and physical education.
Black children could not attend all-white Miami High, so leaders such as D.A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire, and Dr. William A. Chapman, Miami’s first black physician, worked to create a black high school.
“They met resistance because white society didn’t want blacks to be educated,” Fields said. “Blacks were expected to go out and work after eighth grade in the farms down south or as laborers or maids.”
Fields hasn’t forgotten the pungent aroma from an adjacent brewery wafting through the un-air-conditioned school. She used to meet celebrities who performed in segregated Miami Beach but had to stay and eat in Overtown, the Harlem of the South.
Students were active in the Intergroup Youth Council throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
“It was the only organized contact between black and white kids,” Fields said. “Our sponsors would always have to call the police on meeting days to remind them the students would be getting together and there was no trouble.”
Fields studied Art History at Spelman College in Atlanta, where she worked on Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest march campaign to convince Rich’s department store to integrate its lunch counter. She returned to Miami, worked as a librarian and founded the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida.
Preserving the school and documenting its connection to Miami has been part of her mission.
“After the 1980 riots I drove through the city and saw that none of the historic sites were damaged, including the school,” she said. “It’s still a shining star, after all it’s been through.”
Principal Aristide’s main concern for Booker T.’s future is under-enrollment: 940 students attend a well-equipped school (it’s even got a planetarium) with twice that capacity. Students have been siphoned off by charter schools, and now there’s talk of building a new high school to serve the growing downtown population even though Booker T. is perfectly positioned to continue doing just that.
Coach Harris is optimistic. The football team has put the school on the national map, and college recruiters are as impressed by students’ transcripts as they are by their game statistics. He’s confident he’ll hear the same reaction during an upcoming celebratory parade that he heard when Booker T. won the state title last year and in 2007.
“You see the excitement on young kids’ faces,” he said. “That’s impact. They’re saying,‘I want to go to Booker T!’ and their parents are saying, ‘I’d be proud to have my child graduate from Booker T.’”