JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Many are surprised today to learn that Ribault High School in Northwest Jacksonville was a white-only school in the 1960s.
Patricia Pearson, whose father was iconic civil rights leader Rutledge Pearson, helped change that. As a teacher at a Black junior high in Jacksonville, he prepared his daughter and 10 others to become the first Black students to attend Ribault High.
“As one friend of mine pointed out, he taught us critical thinking,” Pearson said of her father.
She and the other students had to take a foreign language, which was not offered at Black schools, in order to get in.
And that’s how they began desegregation in Jacksonville’s schools. Nearby Raines High School had not opened yet as the all-Black high school.
The first days at Ribault High -- and year -- were a challenge for Pearson and the others
“It was hard,” she recounted. “That first day we walked in, of course, we all came together, and from what I can remember, we were all driven, I think, in a couple of cars. Two of the guys from James Weldon Johnson Junior High came in on their motorcycles. ... That first day, somebody vandalized one of the guys’ motorcycles. I mean, ruined the bike. They found out who he was, and he was expelled.”
Those events highlight Jacksonville’s desegregation issues over the years.
“I knew it was not going to be easy that first day because, when we sat down, people got up,” Pearson said. “What I respected about the school is that the teachers protected us and they did not allow any bad behavior.”
A timeline of events that goes back 157 years ago shows, in 1864, the first free school opened in Jacksonville with some Black and white students.
Jump to 1960, that’s when the first lawsuit was filed about segregated Duval County schools.
In 1967, a plan was there to try to fix the problem, but it failed in court.
In 1971, cross-town bussing began. Primarily, it was Black students being bussed to white schools.
There were more changes and lawsuits down the line.
In 1985, school officials were working to lift the desegregation ban.
And then in 1990, the NAACP and the school board were able to reach an agreement, and magnet schools were the answer.
At the time, Judy Poppell was working with the school board and was key in trying to come up with a solution.
“What happened during that time, and I think there are vestiges today, is the white flight from the school district,” the former desegregation coordinator said.
But Poppell said magnet schools were then offered. It’s something that was not forced like bussing. It gave people a choice -- a choice she says is still working. She no longer works with the school system, but I asked her about schools today.
“The majority of the population in the schools, as a whole, is minority children,” Poppell said. “But part of that is a change in society.”
And now with charter schools as a choice, that is having an impact, as well.
And as one of the first Black students at Ribault High, Pearson is not sure what to think of the school today.
“Neighborhoods have changed, and to see what has happened, is really not surprising,” she said. “Because, when we went there, one side of Ribault, Black families were living. The other side was subdivisions where nothing but whites lived.”
In 2009, Pearson and the other trailblazing students returned to the school to discuss the history with current students.
Jacksonville’s desegregation history continues to evolve. We have learned a lot from the challenges in the ‘60s. In fact, some violent incidents were not even reported by local media. But those involved say we are learning from them and we continue to learn.