Commentary: Florida’s Community Colleges Provide a History Lesson

There is still much about civil rights-era history that remains undiscovered, and even what we do know is unknown, for the most part, to students of all ages. On the 50th anniversary of many pivotal events in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, a scathing national report documented the appalling ignorance of this chapter in American history. “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011” was released in September by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program.

Moreover, not only is the history of the civil rights movement not being adequately taught to students today, but primary sources documenting the events of that era are becoming buried in the sands of time. Rescuing the historical record before it is lost to future generations is a matter of the utmost urgency. We must locate, preserve and catalogue the documents, clippings, yearbooks and other evidence that is out there becoming brittle and faded and on the verge of crumbling to dust.

For example, the report ranks Florida as one of the top three states in terms of curriculum standards that include material about this period in history. Yet, ironically, a comprehensive history of the integration of the education system in Florida has yet to be written. In fact, it is unlikely that many college students, let alone those in K-12, have any idea what struggles took place in the very schools that they attend.

The state of Florida, in defiance of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, established a segregated system of junior colleges. The state’s plan was published in 1957 and, in the next few years, 13 segregated junior colleges were created.

Twelve of them had names that were different for the Black and White facilities. They have been documented in a seminal book published in 1994 by Dr. Walter L. Smith titled The Magnificent 12: Florida’s Black Junior Colleges. The 12 Black junior colleges were given separate names, and in state records their student enrollment numbers are listed separately, as late as 1966.

Not included in Smith’s book is the story of the Junior College of Broward County, now Broward College, which was established as an institution for Whites only in 1960. In 1961, a “branch campus” was opened at Dillard High School for Black students. At that time, some attempts were made to conceal what was really happening, and that might explain why the term “branch campus” was used. This tactic served to obscure from the view of historians the battles for equal opportunity in higher education fought in Broward County. Only because of serendipity and a yearlong search of the college archives and other sources was it possible to piece together some of the turbulent history of the school, which is a microcosm of the civil rights-era struggles in America.

In one of the oversized scrapbooks in the archives of the Broward College library in Davie, Fla., among the bits of brittle newsprint, there is an old newspaper clipping from May 1961 with a photograph of a young man and woman walking side by side. The caption reads, “First Negroes Apply at Junior College … James Vickers and Constance Nuby.” They were denied admission, and Vickers was named in the lawsuit filed to integrate the school. A few months later, the “branch campus” opened at the segregated Dillard High School.

After searching for three years, I located Vickers, now 75. He still lives in Broward County, and he did not complete a college degree. He says he just wanted “to pave the way” for others. The college may consider awarding him an honorary degree. He told me that Nuby, a lifelong friend of his and fellow activist, passed away a few years ago.

It was not until after 1964, when the passage of the Civil Rights Act enabled the federal government to impose economic sanctions on noncompliant states, that Florida was forced to begin to institute some changes, albeit grudgingly. Only by preserving the historical documents can we ever hope to learn more about what happened during the civil rights era and teach it to future generations.

I am working with Broward College archivist and librarian Andrew Dutka to mount an exhibit of some of the documents and artifacts I’ve found. The students I’ve talked to about this project were amazed that they had no idea about the struggles to integrate their college more than 50 years ago or that it had been segregated. They seemed a little angry that they had not been taught about it, and they wanted to learn more. Looking at the segregated Silver Sands yearbook of 1963, with the photographs of “branch campus” Black faculty members on a separate page, and photographs of the Black freshman and sophomore students on separate pages, today’s college students are incredulous and rightfully so. They can’t believe that such injustice was perpetrated at their school and that the knowledge of it had been buried for half a century.

Dr. Rivka Spiro is an adjunct professor of English and a public affairs specialist at Broward College.