Black Students Who Integrated Schools in Central Florida 50 Years Ago Share Their Stories

Black Students Who Integrated Schools in Central Florida 50 Years Ago Share Their Stories

By Louis C. Ward (The Orlando Times, NNPA Member)

Gessner Harris remembers White students hanging out of the windows at Eustis High School shouting racial slurs as he entered the school in 1965. Four White football players set fire to Thomas McClary’s sweater during chorus class that same year. Harris and McClary were the first Black students to integrate the high school in Eustis, Fla., about 40 miles north of Orlando, more than 50 years ago.

Although there is no official record at the Lake County School Board (LCSB), its board members and Superintendent Dr. Susan Moxley recently recognized 50 years of integration in its public school system at its March 14th general meeting. And on Sunday, April 17, 2016, former students, teachers and parents made vivid and memorable presentations about what they endured when they integrated Lake County’s school system at the Silhouettes of Criterions Annual Founder’s Day Observance at Gethsemane Baptist Church on Bay Street in Eustis, Florida.

The Annual Founder’s Day Observance program provides the opportunity for the Silhouettes to keep the legacy of the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in Lake County alive in the minds and hearts of past, present and future generations, not only of African Americans, but all Americans. A group of professional African American “Women Striving to Make a Difference,” The Silhouettes of Criterions Civic Club (SCCC) honored the first African American students, parents and teachers who integrated Eustis Heights Elementary School and Eustis High School in1965.

Mrs. Mamie Rolle, well into her nineties and a founder of the SCCC, was the first to described her integration experience as the first African American secretary at Umatilla Elementary School.

“I was told, not asked, to go to Umatilla Elementary School,” Mrs. Rolle informed the group composed of family, friends, and Lake County residents who remembered the times of segregation and integration, and the reign of the notorious Sheriff Willis McCall in Lake County. “Mamie, are you crazy? Do you know who is the principal at Umatilla?” Mamie was asked by a close associate.

“Our children went to an elementary school they knew nothing about. We knew we were putting our children in a point of danger. But we wanted to challenge Lake County,” said Elsie Broomfield, a parent, whose children Brian and Kenneth integrated Eustis’s public schools. “Integration came. Thank God for those children who weathered the storm.”

“I believed that true knowledge of our history is detrimental to our past, present and future history. If we do not know where we have been, how can we know where we are going,” said Harris, fiscal assistant for the LCSB and president of the SCCC. “I believe that the SCCC paying homage to the pioneers of integration, we were afforded an opportunity to make that era of our history known. Thank You SCC!”

Gessner Harris helped to integrate Eustis High School in Lake County, Fla., in 1965. The Silhouettes of Criterions Civic Club recently honored students, teachers and staff members who integrated Eustis Heights Elementary School and Eustis High School in 1965. (Louis Ward)
Gessner Harris helped to integrate Eustis High School in Lake County, Fla., in 1965. The Silhouettes of Criterions Civic Club recently honored students, teachers and staff members who integrated Eustis Heights Elementary School and Eustis High School in 1965. (Louis Ward)

When McClary integrated Eustis High School, he remembered how his neighbors, family and friends supported and encouraged him. “The love and support and confidence they gave me…if it wasn’t for my support from the Black community, I never could have made it.”

“I jump with joy to know that I had a part in shaping your lives. My better years of life, was teaching my students,” said Rena Poole, former Eustis High School teacher and wife of T. H. Poole, the civil rights activist and Tri County President of NAACP, who died in 2015.

The role racist Sheriff Willis V McCall played in the fight against integration and discrimination against Lake County’s African Americans was mentioned by some of the presenters. “I was scared because you know how they talked about [Sheriff McCall],” said one presenter.

More than 26 students, teachers, and parents, who began the fight to integrate Lake County’s School system, were honored by the Silhouettes of Criterions Civic Club Sunday, April 17 in the sanctuary at the recently built Gethsemane Baptist Church, where Reverend Billy Hawkins is the senior pastor, who also experienced racial discrimination in Marion County, and was told by his grandmother to be mindful of Sheriff McCall whenever he visited Lake County.

A northern retiree and Lady Lake resident, said “the program was very informative, and we need to tell our history to our children every chance we get.”

The event was like an oral history lesson for some individuals who attended the event and didn’t know what it was like living under segregated conditions in Lake County during the 1940’s through 1970’s. A program booklet distributed at the event showed a picture taken years ago of two young African American females holding signs. One of the signs read: “Integration Is an Education.”

And in the words of Pastor Thomas Poole, Jr., “it was also dangerous.”

The Orlando Times is a member publication of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Learn more about becoming a member at www.nnpa.org.