CRESCENT CITY - For the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that outlawed segregation in the nation's public schools, I returned to Crescent City, where I graduated from high school in 1963. With a population of nearly 2,000, Crescent City is in southern Putnam County, on U.S. Highway 17 between DeLand and Palatka.
I wanted to see how the place, especially its public schools, had changed since I was here, when white and black children were legally forced to attend separate schools.
On opposite sides of town, our schools mirrored life beyond the campuses, where everything else was separate, too. "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs told us where we could and could not go. Even the simple act of drinking water from a public fountain was governed by warnings. White and black children rarely had physical contact of any kind. While all of us, black and white, knew our places, we blacks grudgingly accepted the ill-conceived wisdom of segregation.
As I drove into the student parking lot of Crescent City Jr./Sr. High School, to keep a 1 o'clock appointment, I was surprised to see dozens of students of various ethnicities milling about and chatting in the shadow of the main building.
I was most struck by the basketball goal near the cafeteria and the six boys, three white and three black, who were shooting hoops. Such an activity - the races playing together - would have been unimaginable in 1963. I watched the game and cheering spectators for about 10 minutes, sensing an easygoing camaraderie I could not have anticipated.
Then I met Joe Warren, the 48-year-old African-American principal. My first questions concerned the basketball game I had just seen in the middle of the day. I was impressed with how well the white and black kids interacted.
"I think it just starts with me," Warren said in the no-nonsense manner that his staff expects. "You, the leader, have to set an example. You have to go out and build a rapport with all of your kids. I can name three-fourths of my kids, and I have almost 900 of them. I think the rapport I have built with the kids over the years has spread. I treat them all the same - all of them. It's a relaxed atmosphere. They don't feel threatened. And they know that if someone steps across the line, we will take care of them regardless of who they are or what color they are."
Warren said that he came by his devotion to fairness the hard way. Instead of making him bitter, the racism he experienced during childhood influenced him to make a positive difference. He was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1956, to migrant farm-working parents. The family moved to Hastings, Fla., where he grew up and attended a segregated school until the ninth grade, when St. Johns County ended its separate-but-equal system. The year was 1970, 16 years after the Brown decision was to have killed Jim Crow.
Initially, racial tensions flared, and a few physical confrontations occurred, Warren said. But he soon learned a lesson in racial sensitivity and cooperation that remains with him to this day.
"After our schools integrated, the football team soldered our community together," Warren said. "We had 15 to 20 white kids on the team. We were surprised at the level of their play. We held the more skilled positions - quarterback, running back, receiver - but they had these big guys up front who could block. The coach pulled us together, and that's when we won our first state championship. Initially, when you looked in the stands, white people would be on one end, and black people would be on the other end. But as the season went along and we started to win, you started to notice the crowds started to mix. After we won the state championship, everything was fine."
Warren attended historically black South Carolina State University on a football scholarship. He majored in physical education and minored in biology. After graduating in 1979, he was hired as a biology teacher and football coach at Crescent City. Several years later, he became the school's principal - the county's first black principal in the post-Jim Crow era. Now, he is the district's only black male principal.
Warren believes that the degree of a principal's personal commitment to racial and ethnic diversity can make a campus a place where students, teachers and other staff members want to be, or it can make it a place they hate. His is a viable philosophy given the diversity of the students. When he first came to Crescent City, the student population was 65 percent white and 35 percent African-American. Now, whites comprise 56 percent and Hispanics slightly outnumber blacks.
Listen to 25-year veteran language teacher Muriel Kuhn: "To say our school has diversity is an understatement. For such a small student body, our demographics encompass Caucasian, African-American, Laotian, Latino, Philippine, Indian and Nigerian. Through our foreign exchange program, we have, or have had, students from Thailand, China, Russia, Brazil, Sweden and Germany. During my years at CCJSHS, I have not felt that the various groups had difficulty getting along. Our faculty and staff have worked diligently to encourage each culture to know about other cultures. We celebrate our differences."
Before leaving campus, I wanted to hear what some students had to say about the ethnic and racial dynamics of their school:
* Ruth Chappell, 17, white, senior: "In my opinion, integration works at CCJSHS. There are rarely any fights between the races, and as you walk through the halls, you see friends of different races mixing and mingling as if they were siblings."
* Danny Senoboutavongnorat, 16, immigrated from Laos, junior: "To me, integration is working okay here at school. I feel welcomed and not left out. A lot of people of different races know me. Everyone treats me well, and I've never have any problems with anyone. I am also able to work in groups and understand other people without arguing. We are a team."
* Ramonda Johnson, 16, African-American, junior: "I feel that for the most part, integration is working here. We have a mixture of many races. At times, we don't see eye to eye and may have disagreements, but we manage to work it out and learn to get along with each other."
* Jonathan Gomez, 18, immigrated from Mexico, senior: "I think that the school should try harder to promote integration. The students try to integrate themselves, but much of it is just for a while. We need more help from the adults."
Although CCJSHS received a grade of "C" from the Florida Department of Education, many district officials believe that, given the campus' unique demographics, Warren and his staff perform extraordinarily. In addition to the town of Crescent City, the school draws students from the tiny working-class communities of Lake Como, Satsuma, San Mateo, Fruitland Park, Georgetown, Welaka, Pomona Park and Hoot Owl Ridge.
"We have the highest reduced-lunch rate in the county, the highest minority population among the high schools, and we have the highest ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) population, and we have the highest poverty level," Warren said. "And I house grades 7-12. On the FCAT, we have to test seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th grades to get a school grade. The other two high schools only have ninth and 10th grades. Last year, we were at a 3.70, 10 points from a "B' school. We're a "C' school with our population."
An important part of the school's success can be attributed to its student-centered approach. "We make a big deal out of the kids," Warren said. "We pump the kids up. They're not afraid to approach any of the staff or me about their problems. It all starts with the kids. We try to get them excited about school. You have to be a fan of the kids. No color. Just kids."
Warren, an unequivocal integrationist, believes that a diverse student population needs a diverse faculty. But he believes that quality must come with diversity.
"Our students deserve the best, and I'm held accountable," he said. "I have to put the best teachers I can in the classroom, and I can't afford to see color. That would be taboo. You've got to be straight for the kids' sake."
Crescent City integrated its two high schools without incident in 1968, and the segregation acadamies that sprang up in many other Southern towns never took root here. Crescent City is one of the Brown decision's success stories.