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A request, then her goodbye

After 12 years on the School Board, Doris Ross Reddick was ready to step away. Before she did, she made a final appeal: preserve black history.

By MELANIE AVE
Published November 16, 2004

TAMPA - Doris Ross Reddick had one more thing to say, one last appeal. It had everything to do with preserving black history and a little to do with teaching a final lesson.

Last week's meeting of the Hillsborough County School Board marked the conclusion of 12 years of service, over three terms, for the first black woman to be elected to the board. Her replacement will be sworn in today.

When it came time for closing remarks, Reddick, a former teacher, spoke with measured, halting words.

She asked that Carver Exceptional Center keep its name when it moves next year. The center is named after George Washington Carver, a celebrated African-American botanist and inventor who was the son of a Missouri slave.

"I think it's important for children to know people like George Washington Carver," Reddick told fellow board members.

She explained how Carver was "one of the greatest scientists ever known." She peered through her glasses and ended her remarks with a characteristic question, "Okay?"

Reddick, 77, was leaving just as she had come more than a decade ago, with a focus on improving education and increasing multicultural awareness.

Friends and colleagues describe Reddick as a gentle and contemplative woman who is strong in her conviction that all children must be treated fairly. During her tenure, she picked her words carefully and often colored her public criticism with a disarming smile or simple praise.

"People knew if Mrs. Reddick had an opinion, she'd share it with them," said Gwen Luney, Hillsborough assistant superintendent. "She would make it clear in a very soft manner."

She stood up for issues affecting black children, employees and contractors. She bubbled over when outstanding African-American students came before the board to be recognized.

"She loves children," said Emily Briggs, School Board secretary. "She wants to see them flourish, to succeed. That's her passion."

The only black member of the board, Reddick cast the lone dissenting vote when the board four years ago approved the choice plan - which she calls the "chance plan" - that replaced busing for desegregation this fall.

Reddick raised concerns this year about equipment delays and crowded conditions at Booker T. Washington K-8 School and Clemmie Ross James K-8 School, which is named for her mother, who was a teacher. Most of the children at the two schools are black. After Reddick's comments, administrators hustled to improve the schools.

"Everything she does is geared toward how it affects students," Hillsborough superintendent Earl Lennard said. "She has a great deal of wisdom.

"It's really been a growth experience for me, working with her. Her institutional knowledge and history is abundant."

Lennard recalled a time years ago when board members were discussing children selling candy to raise money. Reddick worried about children going door-to-door.

The procedures were altered. For safety reasons, school children are now forbidden from going to people's homes to raise funds.

"I think she's brought to the board a real focus on the students," Lennard said.

Reddick was raised by her teacher mother, who had decided in second grade that her future child would be a girl, that her name would be Doris and that the girl would grow up to be a teacher.

So when Reddick graduated from Middleton High School, she attended Bethune-Cookman College and earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education.

She spent 30 years as a Hillsborough educator. She co-wrote a language guide to help white teachers better understand black children when the schools were desegregated. She served as a consultant for Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children, and served on a state task force for teaching black history.

In an interview at her South Tampa home, Reddick said she feels she raised the board's awareness of issues affecting black children and parents. And she said she felt a special duty to stand up for the black community.

"I had to because they had nobody else who would," she said. "The well do not need a doctor."

Being the sole minority voice did not bother her, said Reddick, who dislikes the term "African-American" because her ancestors are African and European. Her great-grandmother was a slave.

Reddick was Thonotosassa Elementary School's first black teacher when she was hired in the late 1960s, and she was the first black person some students had ever met when she taught school briefly in Kingston, N.Y.

When she and her late husband, local civil rights activist and Pullman porter Harold Reddick, joined Hyde Park United Methodist Church, they were the congregation's first black members. They joined the church, which was five minutes from their house, after their Ybor City church closed.

Reddick counts as successes on the board the rebuilding of Blake and Middleton high schools, which were traditional black schools that were closed when the county's schools were ordered desegregated by the courts.

She also points to the increase in minorities receiving contracts from the school district.

"When I got on the board, $1,000 went to black contractors," Reddick said. And now?

"It's in the millions. It took a lot of work, a lot of heartache."

The widowed mother of three grown children and four grandchildren, Reddick said she plans to spend more time with her family. She said she will continue to be involved with education, "even if it's just reading stories to children.

"It's all I know."

Reddick's spot on the board will be filled by retired educator Doretha Edgecomb, one of her former students, who becomes the board's only black member.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 22, 2004, 10:33:51]


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