Local Black History – Panel 5 – Desegregation

Year

2023

Artist

Keith Goodson

Location

Baker Center School
311 E. Charlotte Avenue

Size

104′ w x 8.5′ h

Mural Creation Sponsors

2023:
Sushila Cherian
In Memory of Dr. JV Cherian

Congregational United Church of Christ

Kelly & Pete Gaylord

The Patterson Foundation

Saint Mary Baptist Church
In Memory of Pastor Isaac Thomas Jr

Community Foundation of Sarasota County

Shively Charitable Foundation
Lt. Col. Scot & Jill Shively

Penny Stiffler

The Community

Panel 5 – Desegregation

Baker Academy was the only school in Charlotte County for black students before the 1960’s. In 1958 a new Academy was built on Charlotte Avenue and an addition added in 1962. The school was expanded to seventh grade in 1958 and grades eighth and ninth were added in 1959.

Upon graduation, if a black student wanted to continue their education, they had two choices: 1) go and live with a relative where an all-black high school was available, or 2) ride the school bus an additional 25 miles to Fort Myers to attend all-black Dunbar High School, passing right by Charlotte High School on the way. To participate in extra-curricular activities at Dunbar, a student had to find their own way home, paying for public transportation, or staying overnight with a family in Fort Myers. For black students living on Boca Grande, it was a long day. They had to catch the ferry at 5am, then the school bus to Punta Gorda and on to Fort Myers, returning back home around 8pm each night.

The Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954 (Brown v Board of Education), but Florida, for the most part, was in no hurry to comply. By the early 1960’s, only a few schools in the state had integrated, initially accepting a few black students.

In 1962, a group of local black leaders, led by Bessie Bryant, formed a committee to address the busing of black students to Dunbar and lobby the Charlotte County school board for a better solution. On July 10, 1963, the school board passed a motion “to establish a complete high school at Baker Academy for the 1964-65 school year.” This met with resistance from many including Englewood black residents who wanted their children to attend Lemon Bay schools and not have to continue to travel to Punta Gorda.

Charlotte High School circa 1963 – Courtesy of the Punta Gorda History Center

At a special meeting of the board on July 15th, a motion was approved to “make a study to determine the feasibility of enrolling students from Charlotte County now attending Dunbar High School in Fort Myers in Charlotte High School. The first step in the study shall be to meet with a committee from Baker Academy.” Discussions continued behind the scenes between the committee and Superintendent Hancock to create a plan for a smooth integration.

At a special meeting of the board on August 7th, the Board created the Public Assignment Resolution that included provisions such as the board must “provide for the enrollment in a public school in the County of each child residing therein.” The resolution was approved at the regular board meeting on August 14th.

The committee urged local black families to submit applications for their children to attend CHS for the 1963-64 school year. Sixteen applications were received, and those students were subsequently interviewed and tested for competency.

At a special board meeting on August 26th, a motion was approved “that the following pupils who applied for reassignment to Charlotte Senior High School be accepted on the basis of their academic and scholastic record tentative to a personal interview on August 29, 1963, at 8:00pm: Gertha Haddock, Minnie Lee Mitchell, Isaac Thomas, Jr., Dan Ronald Middleton, Felix Johnson.” Nine applicants were rejected based on their academic and scholastic record and another two for lack of residency and lack of hardship issues.

The Charlotte High Five

At the special meeting the evening of August 29th, the board approved a motion to assign the five students to CHS for the 1963-64 school year.

On the opening day of the school year, September 3rd, the five students were driven to Charlotte High by Isaac Thomas Sr., parking at the front of the school on Cooper Street. The sidewalks were lined with students, and adults watched from across the street. Isaac Sr. and several other black adults from the community escorted the students as they walked up to the front door, turned left, and entered through the side door, which was the main entrance at the time (shown here).

The front and side doors to CHS as they were in 1963 – Courtesy of the Punta Gorda History Center

No incidents occurred so the police force present at the time left shortly after the students entered the school. “I am extremely proud of both our student body and the citizens of our community. It was just like any other first day of school we have experienced in the past,” remarked Superintendent Hancock when interviewed by the local newspaper that day.

Panel 5 of the new Local Black History mural attempts to capture the scene on that Tuesday morning in September 1963, when five brave young students integrated CHS. Their efforts led to the eventual desegregation of all Charlotte County schools over the next several years.