History was being made 50 years ago this week as the first cross country buses of freedom riders rolled into Alabama and Mississippi, only to face withering racial hatred and violence. As two brilliant PBS television documentaries have shown, the non-violent participants played a pivotal roll in nudging the Kennedy administration to finally act, and the civil-rights movement turned the corner that leads directly to our current times.
Did we really live in an America were segregation of whites and blacks was not only legal, but thrived south of the Mason Dixon line? Where white mobs beat and murdered blacks while racist police did nothing? Where schools and hospitals were segregated, blacks sat in the back of buses and weren’t allowed into restaurants?
Multimedia audio slide show tells 1960 story of first Florida high school to integrate. iPhone & iPad version.
I know we did, as I grew up in the 1960’s. I recall flickering black and white television images of students blasted with fire hoses and reading about the freedom riders in Life magazine.
But do young people today know this history? Recently I found out that some Miami high school students were amazed to hear that segregation was a way of life in their home town.
Being white and living in Idaho and Washington state, to me the civil-rights movement was an abstraction. I had never experienced discrimination. In my family we were raised to be inclusive, my parents frequently reminding us that the color of one’s skin did not matter. Then Martin Luther King died. His assassination shook my college idealism to the core, and for a while my friends and I wondered what sort of world was awaiting us.
When I moved to Miami 30 years ago it rarely occurred to me that I was living in the deep south. I remember in 1980 our realtor remarking that just a few years before our Miami Shores neighborhood had been “red lined”, where banks would keep minorities out by applying more stringent loan requirements than to whites. Though no longer pure white, we wouldn’t have to worry about “them”, she implied.
Miami’s Jim Crow legacy hit home when a family friend told of being able to buy a senior prom dress at a downtown department store, but she was unable to try it on first as the fitting rooms were for whites only. She had to buy it and hope it fit. She went on to be the first African American woman judge in Florida.
In the years since the lens through which I viewed my adopted community was that of a rich cultural stew, Cubans and Nicaraguans and Colombians, Coconut Grove Bahamians and African Americans, with Haitians rounding out the mix. An occasional remaining Gringo would be tossed in for seasoning. South Florida’s civil-rights legacy was not on my radar screen.
Last February my radar lit up. I was commissioned to produce a multimedia show about the 50th anniversary of Florida’s first high school to integrate, and while interviewing former students I learned first hand what it was like to live in a segregated Miami.
Paul Wyche, who in 1960 entered the then all white Archbishop Curley School for Boys, told me how his cross country team left a Howard Johnson’s restaurant when he was refused service because he was black. And as a student sports reporter for the Miami Herald he and the black basketball players were called the “N-word” in Homestead.
Constance Moore Thornton described to me the “colored” and “white” drinking fountains at her neighborhood Winn Dixie grocery store, which offended her, so she refused to drink from either. Yet as a rebellious teen she rode in the front of Miami’s buses and endured stares from both blacks and whites without incident. She helped integrate sister school Notre Dame Academy, and like Wyche, felt fully accepted by their Catholic school, faculty and fellow students.
Sandwiched between the Spring 1960 student-led sit ins that integrated lunch counters in Tennessee, Georgia and throughout the south, and the May 1961 freedom rides, history was being made in Miami too. The Archbishop quietly admitted black students into his Catholic high schools in September 1960, without “making a fuss” the Miami Herald reported.
The Archbishop did not have to worry about politics nor historic prejudice within his jurisdiction, plus hundred’s of Cuban students were then flooding his schools as they fled Fidel Castro’s revolution. A few black students moving up from all black parish elementary schools was, as we would say today, a no brainer.
The boy’s school had inherited a legacy of inclusiveness from it’s name sake, Fr. Michael Joseph Curley, Bishop of St. Augustine. In 1916 he led a vocal public campaign on behalf of thee Sisters of St. Joseph who were arrested in violation of state law which prohibited white women from teaching in “negro schools.”
Miami-Dade County schools did not desegregate until the early 1970s, and then only under a a federal court order, which was not lifted until 2001. Observers note, however, that the public schools had to deal with segregated neighborhoods, busing and a sprawling district encompassing hundreds of schools.
To mark the 50th anniversary of it’s integration, Archbishop Curley Notre Dame planned a day long event during Black History Month where students from that era - black, white and Latino - would share their experiences with the students of today. Principal Brother Sean Moffett asked me to tell the story through multimedia, and my first challenge was how.
I decided to interview two former students, now in their 60s, to open the story by talking about their experiences living as teens with segregation. No explanation at first as to why, I wanted a bit of mystery to draw viewers in.
I set up a mini studio at the school the day before the celebration, shot on black seamless and converted the files to black and white to evoke a historic feel. From 50-year-old yearbook photos I cross cut to color as the story shifted to the present day.
Not wanting to build my visual story on just the official ceremony, I photographed the Advanced Placement American History class researching integration history, including exploring micro fiche film a the public library and interviewing students from the early 1960s. This also gave me a great “History Detectives” hook.
I recorded natural sound from the library trip, machines whirling and students reading, and wired subjects with lavaliere microphones and recorders during classroom discussions.
But I was stuck on how to use audio to tell the overall story, from historic perspective to describing events. My technique of interviewing a subject and building a narrative around whatever came out of their mouths would not work. I had points important to the story and set events already photographed. I decided to write a script, and with the help of Junior Taylor Altidor, who would be narrating, and history teacher David Monaco, that’s what I did.
Taylor leads with her amazement in learning about Miami’s segregationist history, and describes how her multiethnic school of just over 300 students embraces a philosophy of inclusiveness. And she notes how those who pioneered integration 50 years ago led to her way of life today.
The result is a five minute multimedia audio slide show that I hope is an informative and emotional history lesson for today’s students. The school plans to feature the piece on the ACND web site, driving traffic from media interviews with students and administrators. They've also received requests to place the story in several university history archives.
Many thanks for the help of Brother Moffett, CFC, VP of Student Services Douglas Romanik, David Monaco, and Taylor Altidor. And thanks to the freedom riders and all those who took risks during the civil-rights movement ... today our country's race relations are far from perfect, but they've come a long ways in 50 years.