Desegregation struggle sets clear example for parents
By ERNEST HOOPER
Published May 20, 2004
Gail Myers Hodges was among the black students who walked into West Tampa Junior High School as strangers nearly 40 years ago.
When they left, they were anything but strangers.
"We left as a family," Hodges said. "There was not a division. It was an embrace. If anyone says they're from West Tampa Junior High, and I say I'm from West Tampa Junior High, there's a bond, immediately."
White, black and Hispanic all found common ground on that campus, and Tampa undoubtedly became a better place.
And it still is today, thanks to the fortitude of a group of parents who challenged the segregation of Hillsborough County schools.
Fifty years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision and nearly 46 years after Manning vs. the School Board of Hillsborough County, the people involved in opening this school district to integration were honored at Wednesday's County Commission meeting.
When board chairman Thomas Scott finished reading the proclamation, the honorees got a standing ovation. We should still be applauding today. And tomorrow. And next year.
Not only should the parents be saluted for accepting the challenge, but their actions set a clear example for many of the problems we're facing today.
Those who were students then are more than happy to recall what it was like to be the first blacks to attend schools with whites.
"It was an atmosphere of curiosity," said Norman Cannon, among the first to attend Robinson High. "You had a slight little fear. You ran into people that were for you and you had some that weren't. It worked out pretty good."
But Andrew Manning, who entered MacFarlane Elementary as a fifth-grader, was quick to point out that it was the parents, not the children, who were the real heroes. Their names were the first to be read by Scott: Willie Mae Manning, Sanders B. Reed, Nathaniel Cannon Sr., Randolph Myers.
They were the people who stood in the face of opposition. Integration had its detractors on both sides, with some blacks believing they were better off segregated, even with inferior facilities. Black teachers feared they would be laid off.
There were more parents in the initial lawsuit, but not all of them could withstand the pressure. Myers, a longshoreman, was one of the few who didn't have to worry about losing his job.
"Growing up, I bypassed white schools and I just didn't want my kids to go through that," said Myers.
As chronicled in a series in the Times this week, the positives yielded from desegregation have come with a growing achievement gap between white and black students. The reasons are complex, but I'm certain the solutions have to involve two things: integration and the same kind of passion displayed by those pioneering parents.
The problems of the gap can't be placed solely at the feet of teachers and administrators. Yes, school accountability is important and teachers who let kids slide should have trouble sleeping at night. But on Dec. 10, 1958, when the school system was far less accommodating, a group of parents demanded more and eventually got it.
Individually and collectively, parents have to make similar demands today, and we have to challenge them to do so.
We can't just admonish teenage mothers as immature; we have to help them grow up faster. We can't dismiss teenage fathers as irresponsible; we have to help them stand and deliver. We have to challenge parents to get as angry as teachers when their children misbehave.
And instead of asking moms and dads to participate in school activities, we should insist upon it.
The greatest tribute we can make to the parents of Manning vs. Hillsborough is to show the same care and concern they bravely displayed in the heat of the civil rights movement.