John P. Ellis II was 8 when his father brought a young, bright-eyed girl to the family’s Orlando home and informed him she was his new adopted sister. The girl’s name was Evelyn Ellis, and she was wise beyond her years. Evelyn advanced quickly in school, moving up grade after grade. By age 12 she was a senior at Jones High School, which in the late 1950s was the only public high school blacks were allowed to attend in Orange County, despite the fact that the doctrine of “separate but equal” had already been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1954.
But Evelyn’s adoptive father thought she was too smart to attend Jones. “He wanted her to have a better education because she was so smart,” John Ellis recalls. “He said, ‘Black schools aren’t good enough.’”
So he pressured the white school board to allow Evelyn to attend the all-white Edgewater High School. (At the time separate boards operated the black and the white schools.) The board conceded that Evelyn was, in fact, too smart to attend Jones, which was strapped for resources and staffed by teachers just short of retirement. But it stopped short of allowing the girl to enroll at Edgewater.
“They came back and said, ‘She is too smart for black schools,’” says Ellis. “They said she’s too smart for white schools too, so they said, ‘Let’s graduate her,’ and they gave her a diploma at 12. That infuriated my father.”
So much so that in 1962, Ellis filed suit in federal court, along with the Orange County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and seven other Orlando families, demanding equal resources, equal schools and integration. The case was titled Evelyn R. Ellis, et. al., v. Board of Public Instruction of Orange County, Florida. They wanted the school board to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools. And they won. At least on paper.
Today, 45 years later, Ellis’ legacy still haunts Orange County schools. Due to decades of inaction, resistance, fear and finger-pointing, the district has never fully complied with a court order demanding that it integrate schools and ensure that black and white students have equal opportunities. The decision has simply languished, coming to the fore occasionally, then slipping quietly to the back burner.
After Brown, some districts – mostly those in the North – began desegregating right away. In the South it was common for school districts to wait, interpreting judicial requests for plans and pledges to integrate as permission to proceed at their leisure. Many school districts, including Orange County, figured allowing black students to file paperwork to attend white schools, while stalling on rezoning and busing, would suffice.
In other parts of Florida, black leaders demanded change. Marchers in Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Tampa let it be known in the early 1960s that they were not satisfied with the status quo.
But in Orlando there were no such marches, says University of Central Florida history professor Vibert White. The issue was tamped down, as if ignoring it would make it go away.
“Orlando was behind,” says White. “They didn’t have people ready to die for their convictions; they were more conservative. They didn’t have that here, which put them far behind in desegregation. In reality, it was segregated until the early 1970s, and it was very tainted even then because of hostility.”
White attributes much of the hesitation to fear of disrupting the tourism industry, which was a thriving – if smaller – industry in Central Florida even before Disney announced its intentions to build here in 1965. “Orange County was, and still is, a tourist center, so desegregation was downplayed by city leaders so it wouldn’t disrupt tourism,” he says.
There was occasional outrage on the part of black leaders, White adds, but no sustained campaigns for change. “When black leaders would march into Woolworth’s, stores would just close for a few days until they got over their rage,” he says. “On issues of great concern to the black community there was no voice. It’s not just an issue of race; it’s an issue of economics. There were still many from poor black areas that were uneducated with no passion to help. They lost strength in visibility and numbers. They became quite timid and didn’t know which way to go to gain power. It was very sad to that extent.”
To placate demands of equality from the black community, both the school board and private donors helped secure donations of books and other materials to black schools. White says the effort was a way to avoid working toward integration.
“They were able to negotiate and pacify African-Americans by giving them opportunities to develop and materials for schools from private donors,” White says. “This was just a way to sedate them.”
Integration was extremely divisive in the South, and there was an understandable reluctance to tear the community apart over it, says the Rev. Jim Perry, an associate pastor at Pine Hills Community Church.
“Everyone in the South was afraid to put their kids through that. They were very reluctant,” says Perry. “There was such stiff resistance at the beginning.”
Perry was the president of the Orange County branch of the NAACP in 1964 and 1965 and spent years leading the organization’s youth group in direct, nonviolent actions. It took a lot of searching to find families willing to sign on to the suit against Orange County schools, he says, because parents were intimidated by the school board’s open hostility toward integration. Parents were also fearful of repercussions or “abuse” against their own children if they signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Perry says.
Nonetheless, the NAACP found plaintiffs. And the organization took action, says Rufus Brooks, an NAACP past president and former Orange County Public Schools principal. Brooks says the Orange County branch of the NAACP held marches and demonstrations. He notes that Martin Luther King’s visit to Tinker Field in 1964 prompted the creation of a biracial committee to monitor the county’s desegregation efforts.
When desegregation became unavoidable in Orange County, the district started with teachers, who were asked to voluntarily switch schools. Teachers who didn’t volunteer had their names scrawled on pieces of paper that were dropped into a fishbowl for a televised drawing in 1970 that became known as the Fishbowl Debacle. Some teachers quit to avoid moving to a school in which they’d be in the minority.
By late 1972, many schools were able to claim 20 percent minority enrollment. Some, such as Washington Shores, remained entirely black, while others, including Pinelock and Hiawassee elementary schools, had only a handful of black students.
After an array of efforts through the middle and late ’70s including rezoning, opening and closing schools, busing and added funding, some schools could legitimately boast integration success. A handful of schools, including Jones High School, then 89 percent black but today 96 percent black, made little leeway.
But efforts came to a near standstill in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when oversight became more relaxed. Requests for new plans and proof of new efforts dried up as if the district, having achieved superficial success, simply quit trying.
Only two efforts since that time proved noteworthy.
In 1981 the board began a magnet program at Jones High School. But by then many of the top students from Jones and Oak Ridge high schools had already fled to other magnet programs via transfer options put into place to ease segregation.
The district also got permission to stop a residual busing effort in 1997.
“We briefly looked at four elementary schools where we were still busing to desegregate, but because neighborhood patterns had changed we were busing black kids to predominantly black schools. It made sense to ask the judge to stop,” explains Orange County School District superintendent Ron Blocker.
In fact, the last time the district got in any hot water at all was in 1971, when a judge threatened to hold the entire school board in contempt after missing a court-imposed deadline for filing a plan outlining their plans to desegregate. The board came up with a document it called “Court-Ordered Plan,” adopted in a special school board session, that angered the judge.
“Except as to Holden Street and Webster Avenue Elementary schools, the ‘plan’ is not a plan but a brief in opposition to filing a plan,” U.S. District Judge George Young wrote. “The filing of such a document in lieu of a plan was inappropriate and legally impermissible. The fact that the board may oppose the action directed by this court is no excuse for non-compliance. Appeal – not disobedience – is the appropriate avenue for continued opposition.”
Young said that if a “bona fide plan” were not submitted, school board members and the superintendent could be charged with contempt and have “appropriate penalties imposed.” That was enough to force the district to come up with a legitimate plan. But the result of Young’s arm-twisting was a rudimentary outline of how to desegregate, requiring little rezoning. Busing and rezoning efforts in the mid-’70s finally helped the district achieve some semblance of integration.
One reason for the district’s sloth, perhaps, is the fact that there’s no incentive to comply with the lawsuit. The only consequence is the threat of losing federal or state funding, which has never actually occurred. School officials don’t even mention the possibility.
District officials themselves seem puzzled as to why nothing has happened in decades. “I don’t know why it never happened before,” says Frank Kruppenbacher, general counsel for the school board, who says the district hasn’t had a plan in place since the late 1970s. “Nobody ever said we should try to sit down and bring it to a conclusion, and address anything that might still be out there.”
School board member Kat Gordon, the board’s only black member, says she’s spent much of her time “screaming” about achieving unitary status since she was elected to the board in 2000.
“I saw that no one was bringing it forward and as no one brought it forward, we were getting farther and farther behind,” Gordon says. “We were way out of balance and no one had even looked into it.”
Gordon, a former teacher, says previous boards and superintendents did nothing. She calls boards that have served through the 1990s “an embarrassment.”
“After Brown v. Board, they said they were not going to deal with it. They knew some schools were not being treated fairly,” she says.
No push, no pull
If the district doesn’t know how to comply with the order to desegregate, the local chapter of the NAACP doesn’t seem to know how to make them, either. Though the group repeatedly asked for court intervention in the ’60s and ’70s, it has become lax as the group’s numbers have dwindled and its members aged.
The Rev. Randolph Bracy, of New Covenant Baptist Church, was elected to lead the Orange County NAACP earlier this year. Though he’s been active in the organization for 50 years, he didn’t live in Orlando when the suit was filed and says he can’t answer questions about the group’s inability to press the issue.
Bracy acknowledges that the school board has taken some positive steps toward integration. But don’t expect a resolution soon. “I think it’s going to be a real extended effort. It’s not going to be soon,” he says.
Just the idea of electing a board chair – a sort of school board mayor, with veto power – as was recently suggested has pushed negotiations back at least two years, he says. A person in such a position would act as a tiebreaker, essentially with a super-vote.
“[The proponents] are trying to turn back the clock. We do not support that at all; that would put us back in a very adversarial position,” Bracy says. “I would be very surprised if we got any further. This is about where we were a couple of years ago.”
Even if segregation is no longer the official policy of Orange County schools, its effect is still felt today. The Florida Department of Education has given Jones High School an F grade for the last five consecutive years. In fact, all of the schools scoring a D or F have disproportionately high percentages of black students, while only 28 percent of the district’s students are black.
Evans High School, which is 84 percent black, scored an F during the last round, as did Hungerford Elementary and Summit Charter West, both of which are 83 percent black.
Schools scoring D’s include Orange Center Elementary (99 percent black), Grand Avenue Primary Learning Center (80 percent black) and Oak Ridge High School (49 percent black).
The trend is apparent among FCAT scores, too. Only 15 percent of ninth-graders at Jones and Oak Ridge high schools scored at least
a Level 3, the state standard, on the reading portion. At Winter Park High School, which is 63 percent white, 62 percent of freshman hit that mark.
At Orange Center Elementary, 33 percent of third-graders scored a Level 3 on reading, while 72 percent achieved that goal at Pershing Elementary (71 percent white), and a considerably higher percentage – 86 percent – scored at least a Level 3 at the predominantly white Dommerich Elementary.
Jones, nearly shut down in the past because of its poor performance, has suffered the most when it comes to being stigmatized.
“There’s always going to be white flight. White kids won’t even come to see what Jones has to offer because of the stigma,” Perry says. “They have this image of Jones as an F school. The FCAT does not determine who or what a person becomes in life.”
Success in Seminole
The experience in Seminole County, which got out from under its own lawsuit only last year after 36 years of court oversight, is eerily similar to what has happened in Orange County. In Seminole, just as in Orange, the district started to comply with the court order, but lost steam in the 1970s.
“The efforts fell by the wayside over the years when the Justice Department was not monitoring as intently,” says Dr. Anna-Marie Cote, executive director for instructional excellence and equity for the Seminole County School District.
By the mid-1990s the district began pushing for a release from the order, in part by creating health and international baccalaureate programs at Seminole High School in 1997. Crooms Academy, one of the district’s magnet high schools, was established, as was the Lyman Institute for Technology. Cluster elementary schools also were created. Parents ranked their top three school choices and children were then assigned based on availability and racial equity. The district also began offering desegregation transfers, allowing a black student to transfer to a traditionally white school or vice versa.
Cote says the efforts proved successful. Seminole’s school district has just completed its transitional year and is now officially on its own without oversight for the first time in decades. But she notes that Seminole’s experience does not necessarily apply to Orange because the former is much smaller, less dense and has a different economic base.
Brooks, the former NAACP leader, says economic integration and a plan that closely mirrors Seminole’s will be the only way the Orange County School District will be successful in getting released from the court order. “We are close to it but economic integration will be the only way. Whites and blacks have been exposed to each other, so the fear is gone,” says Brooks. “If it’s working for Seminole, why can’t it work for us?”
Kruppenbacher, the Orange County school board attorney, says the board wants to settle the case. “The incentive has really been knowing we’re doing what’s right,” he says.
As a way forward, he expects to provide the board with an update on settling the case or actions needed to achieve a settlement within the next six months.
Also, next year Jones will begin offering the international baccalaureate program, and several predominantly black middle schools will begin featuring a string instruments program.
“These certainly have been held very tightly by white schools,” says Jim Martin, vice chairman of the school board. “I think it’s a good start – making sure we have good magnet programs. We have to make sure that struggling schools do not get weak programs.
“I was a student when the court orders came through,” Martin adds. “I’ve thought it was ridiculous that it’s more than 40 years later and we’re still talking about the same stuff.”
He says the board has made some significant strides but still struggles to ensure facilities are comparable at predominantly black schools. At the top of that list is Evans High School, a 50-year-old facility in desperate need of upgrades.
“It seems strange to me that other boards didn’t address it. I cannot begin to address why other boards didn’t make it a priority,” he says, speculating that one problem may have been the practice of electing board members at large, which meant there wasn’t a specific member to hold accountable for failures.
“They were voted at-large years ago so no one had to take responsibility for segregated failing schools,” he says.
Doretha Fedrick, a retired teacher who taught for Orange County schools for 37 years, says achieving unitary status would likely involve redrawing boundaries to reflect the district’s current population, and hiring additional black teachers and administrators.
“The schools were not and still are not nearly equipped the same. And some minority students don’t attend school as regularly, so they don’t get enough funding,” says Fedrick.
Many older schools that weren’t well-stocked with items ranging from library books to gym equipment to audiovisual aids in the 1960s or 1970s never caught up, and remain ill-equipped today.
“The truth is that for the last 40 years [the district] has not been able to do what the declaration said it must do,” Fedrick says. “It is not as blatant; it’s far more subtle and insidious, but there are black kids feeling the sting on school grounds and in the classrooms today.”