Lee County schools integrated a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, work still to be done

Reporter: Breana Ross
Published: Updated:

Slavery was abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but that did not mean Black and white people would have a level playing field. In fact, integration in Lee County schools did not happen until about a century later.

When you go to a Lee county school today, you’ll find a melting pot of different faces of all different races.

Dr. Shirley Chapman remembers a time when that wasn’t the case. She attended Dunbar High School in the early ’60s when schools were still segregated – separate and unequal.

“We would always get hand-me-down typewriters, hand-me-down books from over at Fort Myers High,” Chapman recalled. “Our teachers would always tell us don’t worry about what the outside looks like, you worry about learning, what is between the covers.”

Dr. Shirley Chapman

Mrs. Ida Wells was one of those teachers at Dunbar High School. She was determined to prepare her students even without all the tools. “My field was teaching science, and if you don’t have a bunsen burner or a test tube or whatever to display for the kids then science is just talking, not doing … That’s all we knew so we did our best.”

Dunbar was the only high school for Black kids in the early ’60s, so kids were bussed from all over Southwest Florida to one building.

The previous location was on High Street until 1962 when it then moved to Edison Avenue.

However, it was still segregated almost a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation.

Mrs. Ida Wells

Wells said, “At that time I didn’t know of anyone who was pushing for integration, but after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, then it said separate but unequal was proven, so then they had to integrate and that’s at the national level. It was not until 1964 until Lee County integrated schools.”

That was only after a lawsuit forced Lee County’s hand.

Rosalind Blalock, a Black student at Dunbar High School, was denied enrollment to the all-white Fort Myers High School in 1963.

She wanted to go there for better science equipment and new textbooks to prepare for a career in medical technology.

Blalock, several other students, and the NAACP sued the district and won, forcing them to integrate.

“There was resistance to integration.” Wells said, “I guess it was the nature of the people residing in Lee County. And maybe at that time even many of us were not pushing for integration … We found out that we had better equipment and in essence, it might have been better in one way, and in another way, a lot of our practices were discarded.”

Fifty-eight years later Gwyn Gittens is the first and only Black person to sit on Lee County’s school board.

She feels there’s still a long way to go for minority students to truly be treated as equals. “I don’t think we are leaps and bounds from the 60s. Everybody is all together and we don’t have this school over here and that school over there, but we don’t have the same resources,” she said.

Dr. Chapman agrees, but she does not resent her time at the segregated Dunbar High School. “We were a close-knit community,” she said.

The Southwest Florida community is still fighting for better for the next generation of students.

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