Middleton High, a renewal
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- It wasn't only a school.
Middleton High School was the center of East Tampa's black community for 36 years. During the days of separate and unequal education for black students, the school promised a better life to those who attended.
"A lot of people say, "You didn't have the proper education, the proper books,' " said 1968 Middleton graduate Henry "Shake" Washington. "But we had love at our high school. We had everything we needed in the community because everybody loved the school."
In 1971, both Middleton and Blake high schools -- the city's two historically black high schools -- were closed under a federal desegregation order. A new Blake High opened near downtown in 1997. But the East Tampa community was left without a heart.
After a decadelong effort by alumni to get a new Middleton built, the Home of the Tigers is about to make a comeback. Community excitement is building, with several festivities planned for Saturday. Located on 52 acres on N 22nd Street and Osborne Avenue, the $46.5-million Middleton High will open next month as a math, science and technology magnet with 1,200 students.
About 900 students will come from surrounding neighborhoods. Eventually, the school will serve 2,150 students.
The new Middleton has two classroom wings, an administrative building, gym, auditorium and cafeteria spread over 240,000-square feet. A large tree-lined grassy area makes up the center of the complex. Sports fields dot the back of the property.
The school district spent $8.3-million to buy 112 lots for the school. The new site is a half-mile north of the old Middleton, which had been converted to A.J. Ferrell Middle school. The land cost more than twice the price of property for Freedom High School in New Tampa.
The large investment shows a commitment by the school district to provide quality schools in the inner city, not just the booming suburbs, said School Board Chairwoman Doris Ross Reddick, a 1943 graduate of Middleton.
"The black community is very happy that this school is going to be opened," Reddick said. "I am so happy that God has allowed me to live long enough to see the new Middleton."
So are the dozens of Middleton graduates who have pleaded with board members to build a new school since 1991.
Leading the charge was Fred Hearns, former president of the Middleton High School Alumni Association and a 1966 graduate.
The effort began as part of a committee that planned an all-school reunion in 1991. Soon, alumni began meeting regularly with school officials.
"The reaction was, it sounds nice but there's no money," said Hearns, director of the city of Tampa's Office of Human Rights and Community Services.
Reddick helped persuade her colleagues to build the school. The Community Investment Tax provided the money.
Hearns calls the new school a dream come true. And with its construction has come many memories of the old days at Middleton, a school that had no cafeteria, lockers or vocational classrooms. Many materials were hand-me-downs from the white schools.
"In three years of high school, I only recall getting one new textbook," said Hearns, 53. "Sometimes the pages were missing, but we did what we had to do."
Former teacher Cathy Susar, who is white, was hired at Middleton when the school district began integrating its faculties in the 1960s. Fresh out of college, she was young and idealistic. To the students, Susar, then known as Miss Palmer, was kind of strange.
"They had not really been close to any white people and I had not been close to many black people," recalled Susar, who now teaches history at Hillsborough High. "We did things like touch each other's hair and skin.
"I would have stayed there forever."
She remembers crowded conditions and repairs that took too long to make. The history books were the same ones she had used as a high school student. But the faculty was very well educated.
"There were Ph.D.s all over the place," she said. "So many of these people had Ph.D.s, but so many doors had been closed to them."
Tyrone Brown, who graduated in 1966 and is now alumni association president, recalls football games against rival Blake High and dances at Central Park Village. He lived on the other side of town, but loved Middleton so much he caught a city bus to attend classes there.
Most people were shocked when the decision to close Middleton was announced in 1971. Cynthia O. Keeton, then a senior, marched down to the federal courthouse with other students and her mother, protesting the closing.
"It was a sad day back in those days," said Keeton, who works for the Hillsborough County Health Department. "Most of us had been together since kindergarten."
The opening of the new Middleton sparks particular passion, since its closing was seen as a slap in the face to the black community.
"I feel like an injustice has been made right," said Norene Copeland, a 1971 graduate who is now a Hillsborough County Head Start social service specialist.
L.B. Anderson Jr. hopes the new Middleton students will share the pride he felt for the school.
"We will never be able to recapture the spirit the community had at the time," said Anderson, a 1971 graduate and social services investigator for Hillsborough County. "But there can be a rejuvenation of the community."
Washington, the 1968 Middleton graduate, was named the school's principal earlier this year, a career highlight that comes with a lofty mission.
"The responsibility is for me to show the students how to love the school," said Washington, a former Chamberlain High principal. "I want to bring the feeling back."
-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
The Middleton High School Alumni Association has organized a motorcade, ribbon-cutting and pep rally to celebrate the school's return. A 40-car motorcade will leave from Ferrell Middle School at 9 a.m. Saturday and go north to Middleton High School, 4801 N 22nd St. At the school, a new alumni wall featuring the engraved names of 1,800 Middleton graduates and a bronze tiger will be presented. The festivities also include a pep rally and program in the auditorium featuring former drill team, chorus and band members. School officials plan to recognize the former Miss Middletons, including the first from 1935 and the last from 1971.
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