Planning a high school reunion can be a tremendous task. According to Roberta Daniels, president of the Booker T. Washington Senior High school Alumni Association, planning the school’s 90th anniversary has been “awesome.”
Daniels and the alumni’s reunion committee have been working for nearly a year identifying and organizing activities to celebrate the past and inspire the future. The intent: encourage students to become positive and productive citizens in the face of continuing adversities and achievements.
Miami-Dade County’s first senior high school, “free to all white children,” was Miami High. It opened the 1902-03 school year.
Miami-Dade County’s first senior high school, “free to all black children,” was Booker T. Washington Junior-Senior High. It opened the 1926-1927 school year and is the subject of this column.
Educating children was important in the black community from the time black men stood as incorporators for Miami to become a city on July 28, 1896. During the early 1920s, pioneer businessman D. A. Dorsey, Miami’s first black millionaire, was in charge of education for black children. He hired the teachers and led the community’s efforts for a junior-senior high school. After Dorsey’s death, Dr. William A Chapman Sr., a medical doctor, became chairman of the advisory board.
The name chosen for the school, Booker T. Washington, honors a man whose life’s work was dedicated to educating black children. A former slave (1856-1915), he gained his freedom and was educated at Hampton Institute. Later, he founded Tuskegee Institute and The National Negro Business League.
Located in Miami’s Colored Town/Overtown, BTW began as a combined junior and senior high school. It was the first board-recognized public school in South Florida to provide education for black children in grades 7 to 12.
This was the Jim Crow era in the United States, when by custom and law black people were separated from white people solely because of race. As a result, black people, then called colored and Negro, known now as African Americans, were treated unequally in education, transportation, accommodations and every other phase of life.
Prior to the opening of BTW, black children, after completing eighth grade, were expected to get jobs and work full time. Resistance to the notion that black children did not need a high school diploma was intense and constant. The black community encouraged the administration at Dunbar, a pioneer elementary school also located in Overtown, to add a grade each year up to 10th grade without approval from the county board.
This was common practice throughout the south. James Weldon Jonson, an educator, lawyer, diplomat and composer of the “Negro National Anthem” titled “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” writes about being principal of Stanton Elementary in Jacksonville. On his own, by adding a grade each year—without approval — he converted Stanton into a senior high school for black children to earn a high school diploma.
In Miami, black parents, mostly laborers and washer women, so determined for their children to be educated sent them away to boarding schools. From 7th to 12th grades, Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) provided high school programs for black children throughout the South who lived in areas similar to Miami-Dade County where no public high school was available.
Finally, during Miami’s real estate boom, a public senior high school for black children was built. However, plans to open it were delayed because of damage by both unnatural and natural forces, a bomb and a hurricane.
Pioneers including the late Dorothy Graham, Elry Sands and Stanley Newbold Sr. spoke often about the bombing and the 1926 storm. They remembered that Miami was devastated when the hurricane blew roof tops off houses, lifted wooden houses off cement blocks, and caused additional damage to the new school.
Opening the building was delayed until the following year, February 1927. Then, how proud the students were to march from Dunbar, 505 NW 20th St. to Booker T., 1200 NW Sixth Ave.
The first senior high class graduated in 1928. My mother, the late Dorothy J. McKellar, and her brother, the late James K. Johnson Sr., graduated from BTW in 1929. Their older siblings were sent to boarding schools, because my grandmother insisted on all seven children receiving high school educations. I graduated from BTW in 1960.
In the day, the opening of the new senior high school was good news to pioneer Ruth Sweeting Walks. She completed Dade Training School for Colored Children in Coconut Grove. It later became George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School.
“I was lucky that my parents could provide daily transportation Overtown for me to earn my high school diploma,” Walks said in a recent interview.
After graduation, she became a school cafeteria manager and later a teacher.
At BTW, she met students from as far south as Key West and as far north as West Palm Beach. One of her classmates from Overtown was Garth C. Reeves Sr. now publisher emeritus of the Miami Times.
The oldest living BTW graduate, Walks, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Dec. 1, and Reeves, who celebrated his 98th birthday on Feb. 12, have been invited to help celebrate our school’s history.
The reunion committee has worked many long hours to present meaningful activities. The committee includes Roberta Daniels, chair; Cecilia Lawrene Hunter and Eunice Davis, co-chairs; and members George Storr, Ralph Williams, Paulette Martin, Mary Hylor, Barbara Burrows, GiGi Tinsely, Joan Ballard, Lebbie Lee, Marsha Marks Scott, Rodney Jackson, William Parks, James Green, Maud Newbold, Evelyn Davis, Laura Jones, Thomasena Wilder, Lorraine King and Agnes Morton.
The ambitious reunion schedule began with a recent prayer breakfast at St. Agnes Episcopal Church. This week from Monday through Friday, students at school will write essays and compete in contests. On Wednesday, the BTW Alumni Association will be honored at the Miami-Dade County Public School Board meeting by invitation of School Board member Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingal. On Friday, special recognition at the school will include resolutions from the office of the mayors. Afterward, a 12:30 p.m. parade leaves BTW and will pass all of the schools in Overtown originally in BTW’s feeder pattern: Dunbar, Phillis Wheatley, Douglass.
On April 29, will be a Living Legends Award Ceremony, followed by Alumni Week, May 18-21.
Parade co-chair Cecilia Hunter wants the float, “to be a pictorial view of BTW’s history.” The theme: “The Legacy continues: 90 years of Excellence” will include events of 1926, school principals, faculty and staff; coaches; and the first Silver Knight winner, Barbara Williams.
Parade marshal Esterlene Colebrook, 94, was the school’s beauty queen in 1941. Miss BTW 1951, Antonia Puyol George, now 84, will ride on the float with Charles Adderley, 93, a WWII veteran, Purple Heart winner, class of 1942.
The BTW school motto, “not the largest, but the best,” reflects the school’s endurance through hurricanes, boundary changes and other obstacles. The achievements of graduates and students demonstrate excellence in sports and academics.
The faces of the students on the school’s website, www.btwtornadoes.org, and collaborative programs with Florida International University, speak of a promising future. In the 2016 graduation newsletter, BTW’s current principal, William Aristide, congratulated students and graduates for reaching an important milestone. Happy Birthday, Booker T!
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.