Whether they asked to be part of it or not, Booker T. Washington High School's class of 1973 helped make history as one of Escambia County's first integrated classes.
This past weekend, some of the alumni gathered for their 50-year reunion and reflected on the legacy of those early years of desegregation.
“The opportunity to meet and get to know and learn and work with other kids who had similar ambitions and values was a huge, huge benefit and influence on me, and it paved the way for many other things I've done in my life,” said Ellen Adair Wyche, one of the alumni.
Washington opened in 1916 as a segregated school for Black students and remained that way until 1969, when a court ruling in Augustus v. School Bd. of Escambia County, Florida forced the school board to desegregate all schools in the county.
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The freshman class coming into Washington after the court ruling had a variety of hopes, fears and ambitions starting the school year.
Cheryl McCray, who is Black, dreamed of being a cheerleader, but it hadn't been possible at her prior school.
“I went to Workman (Middle School) and at Workman there were only five Blacks in the school and I used to sit and watch the cheerleaders and knowing that I couldn't even try to become a cheerleader,” McCray said.
It wasn’t until she went to Booker T. where she was finally able to experience her dream. Even then, there was a clear divide among the school's eight cheerleaders — four Black and four white.
There were racial tensions throughout the county that sometimes erupted into fist fights among students.
“Every time the Blacks got beat down at Escambia High School, I knew that the whites were going to get it at Booker T. Washington the next day and it always happened at lunchtime,” McCray remembers.
Still, many students were excited to broaden their horizons.
Wyche, who is white, said she had the support of a progressive family that was excited she was getting the opportunity to be on the leading edge of the biggest social change that the country had undergone since the end of the Civil War.
Winnie Schreiber, who is white, said her parents were afraid of the sudden radical change happening with schools and wanted to send her off to a private school. Instead, Schreiber was able to convince them of the importance of being a part of that radical change. She was able to make new friends with classmates she would have never interacted with before and become a part of a larger movement than herself.
“We loved it because we were fighting for change too,” Schreiber said. “We knew that these things needed to happen for our society, for our democracy. I'm thrilled that I was part of that.”
Clifton Jenkins, who is Black, spent his first six years at segregated schools and his last six years at desegregated schools. Jenkins felt one of the hardest things to experience was seeing the disparity in how Black students were treated.
He said while going to mixed schools like Clubs Middle School and Booker T. Washington, he had white teachers who didn’t seem to care or put in the same effort for Black students.
Looking back on those years, Jenkins said it is not children who are to blame for their prejudices but the adults who teach and influence the minds of impressionable children.
“Children don't know racism," Jenkins said. "As you grow up with those people, you become friends and you'll find out, 'Hey, they’re just like me.'”
Robert Barnes, who is white, attended N. B. Cook Elementary School where they sang "Dixie," the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, after singing the national anthem. By the time he transferred into Washington from Tate High School, he was singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” dubbed as the Black National Anthem.
Barnes saw the school attempting to figure out ways for both the Black and white students to share the school, such as having a white and Black bands perform at school performances, and integrating the sport teams and cheerleading.
“When I look back and think about all the things I didn't really learn about or didn't really have an appreciation of, it wasn't until much later that I learned that Pensacola had sit-ins and activities like that,” Barnes said. “Those weren't topics that we really talked about much in school or learned about in school, so it was much more what we learned from each other."
Don Griesheimer, a white teacher who entered the school with the class of '73, felt the students had a more profound effect on him than he could ever have on them.
Griesheimer was a young teacher at Workman Middle School who was asked by parents to come to Washington and help with the desegregation of the school. He ended up teaching English, and looking back he enjoyed every moment of teaching and interacting with every student.
He said he feels disheartened with the way Florida school education is going backward with the controversies surrounding school book bans, critical race theory and AP African American studies.
Griesheimer said he believes kids can make intelligent decisions on their own and watching the class of 1973 taking part in one of the most historic moments of the school's history, whether they asked to be a part of it or not, he knows every child can succeed.
“It wasn't it wasn't easy for these kids, it wasn't, but they did more than survive. They changed the school,” Griesheimer said. “They did it with faculty and friendships, regardless of color.”
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola's Washington High School first desegregated class reunion