Miami-Dade County

Black History Month: A teaching moment — respect for all

Lois Oliver, a retired Miami Dade County public school teacher, who moved to Miami as an infant in the 1930s and worked from the ‘60s to ‘80s in the school system, is photographed at her Miami home on Feb. 4, 2016.
Lois Oliver, a retired Miami Dade County public school teacher, who moved to Miami as an infant in the 1930s and worked from the ‘60s to ‘80s in the school system, is photographed at her Miami home on Feb. 4, 2016. PATRICK FARRELL

The era was the 1960s. The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, finally caught up to Miami-Dade schools in 1959. In the 1970s, the busing of students became the next flashpoint in the race toward integration.

Lois Oliver was an English teacher through this combustible era. Born in Cordele, Georgia, Oliver moved to Miami as an infant in the 1930s. She was a product of black schools, like Phyllis Wheatley Elementary and Booker T. Washington High and, later Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU).

“I don’t remember having a problem there,” Oliver, 87, said of high school at Booker T. “Our principal there was very strict. He taught us many things he felt we weren’t getting taught at school.”

Among those teachings: “Being on time and respecting the teachers and trying to be the best you could be. We were told this all the time — that you had to do better to get a job than a white person. We took pride in the teachers selecting you to apply for a job,” Oliver said in a warm voice that evokes memories of favorite teachers.

Oliver, president of the Booker T. Class of 1947, took the advice and came to the attention of Charles D. Wyche, the sole principal of North Dade Junior/Senior High, a school that opened in 1957 in the Bunche Park neighborhood of Miami Gardens. Integration led to its closing nine years later as its students transferred to predominantly white schools in North Miami-Dade to complete their education.

“The late Charles D. Wyche was looking for teachers to accommodate the neighborhood community and he wanted teachers who he felt were really about teaching,” Oliver remembers.

A career was born.

As an English teacher, she worked her way through North Dade Junior/Senior High, Miami Northwestern Senior High and North Miami Beach High School. When black history instruction was proposed in the 1970s, Oliver was quickly tapped to help lead the curriculum.

“It meant a lot to me to be a part of that,” Oliver said.

Years earlier, in the 1950s, while at FAMU, she was sprayed with jets of water while demonstrating for the integration of lunch counters in Tallahassee.

“I loved teaching because I liked learning,” she said. “Each year I taught, I learned more and I liked knowing that next year I could improve over what I did wrong in the previous year. I never had a problem with discipline because I told them they could say anything they wished to say as long as they were respectful.”

I loved teaching because I liked learning.

Retired Miami-Dade teacher Lois Oliver.

Oliver also served as a counselor and work experience coordinator for Miami-Dade County Public Schools until her retirement in 1986.

Through her career, especially during the 1960s as the desegregation movement picked up momentum, she witnessed countless changes. A white teacher sat next to her once, crying. “She told me she never sat beside a black person.”

Another time, at the predominantly white North Miami Beach High, 2 percent of the student population was black and arrived by bus. Some parents didn’t want their white kids associating with the black kids. A meeting between parents and teachers was called. Of course, Oliver was there. She changed its tone. Fast.

A white parent, she remembers, complained that a black student had touched his daughter. Not in a sexual way, Oliver clarified. Just touched.

The memories flood back.

“I remember listening to all of this and I raised my hand and I said to them I was aware of their concern and I would be too. I said, ‘Would you have felt the same if a white boy had touched her?’

“Everything got quiet and you could hear a pin drop,” she said. “Because of my sincerity of not accusing them, they appreciated that. The moderator said, ‘With that, we will close the meeting.’ 

Oliver breaks into laughter.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen