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A determined black woman blazes a trail

Urged by teachers and her mother to ''be somebody,'' Dr. Johnnie Ruth Clarke grows up to do just that.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- In the late 1920s, Dr. Johnnie Ruth Clarke made a childhood vow that she would become somebody.

She then proceeded to swim against a tide of prejudice. "We had to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps," Clarke recalled. "I came from rock bottom."

Clarke became one of the state's leading educators. In 1966, she was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from the University of Florida college of education.

"Any time you turned around, you saw the footprints she left in the educational field," said Dr. Carl M. Kuttler Jr., president of St. Petersburg Junior College, where Clarke served as associate dean of academic affairs.

The Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, at 1310 22nd Ave. S, bears her name. The medical facility opened in 1985; the dedication was a posthumous honor.

"She had broad recognition as a great humanitarian," said Perkins T. Shelton, the local NAACP's director of branch affairs.

"One of her greatest accomplishments, however, was as a wife and mother," said a friend, Chrystelle White Stewart.

Clarke was born in 1919, the daughter of the Soreno Hotel's head bellman and head housekeeper. She often would visit Mayor Frank Fortune Pulver who, in white suit, held forth from his kitchen and fascinated her with talks about tourism. It was her black teachers at Davis and Jordan elementary schools, however, who made a bigger impression.

Instructors Fannye Ponder and O.B. McLin instilled "the concepts of being somebody, running further than and making a contribution," Clarke said.

Her parents, the first in her Seventh Avenue S neighborhood to have indoor plumbing, were just as insistent. "You're going to be somebody, or I'll die trying," Clarke's mother often warned.

Clarke entered Florida A&M High School in Tallahassee about 1933. Blacks were denied upper-level education here. She received a bachelor's degree in social science from Florida A&M and later earned her master's degree at Fisk University in Nashville.

In the early 1940s, she married future St. Petersburg dentist Dr. J.L. Clarke. The couple raised five children.

Clarke taught at Bethune-Cookman College and, in the mid-1940s, at Florida A&M. "Her gestures and her flair made the class come alive," said Stewart, 74, who met Clarke there. They met again in 1956, when they taught at Sixteenth Street Middle School, rebuilt and renamed John Hopkins.

"It was practical to be a schoolteacher because the white society allowed you to," explained Clarke, who also was an Evening Independent columnist.

By 1959, Clarke was dean of Gibbs Junior College, now Gibbs High School, and was enjoying family and friends. "Everyone was welcome in our house," said Cathlene Clarke, 46, the instructor's daughter and now a Brevard County judge.

Clarke, who believed "it's nice to be important but important to be nice," often housed foreign-exchange students.

"You never put anyone down in front of her," said Clarke's son Peter, 44. Her son Michael, 47, said she was a disciplinarian, "the type of mom you didn't want to let down."

In 1966, Clarke became the first black woman to earn a doctorate at a Florida public university. "She was a trailblazer," said Willie Felton, associate vice president of educational and student services at SPJC, where a scholarship bears Clarke's name.

As SPJC's assistant dean of academic affairs in 1968, Clarke established the Total Opportunity Program, which directed high school students into employment, college or vocational-technical training.

"She was always building bridges," recalled Kuttler, 61, who worked with Clarke for 12 years.

In the late 1960s, the U.S. Office of Education hired Clarke as a consultant. "She traveled all over the country showing how to organize junior colleges," said another friend, Lois Howard-Williams, 79.

As assistant director of the Florida Regional Medical Program in 1972, Clarke organized programs to battle sickle-cell anemia and other diseases affecting the impoverished, including whites.

"Blacks and whites have built this town," Clarke wrote four years before her death. "They will together meet (future) challenges."

Clarke died in 1978 of rheumatic heart failure at age 58.

"I never realized how important she was until she died," said her son Michael. Clarke rarely talked about herself, said daughter Cathlene. "She talked about ideas."

- Contact Scott Taylor Hartzell at hartzel@msn.com.

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