Confederate symbols graced white high schools throughout the South before desegregation. At Gainesville High School from 1958 until 1962, when I attended, the marching band played “Dixie” at halftime at every home football and basketball game.
Some kids would bring Confederate flags. Everybody would stand. On a sidewalk, there was a painted Confederate flag; you weren’t supposed to step on it.
Ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, in 1964, the first African American students were admitted to Gainesville High School. By September 1969, in grades 10-12, 264 African Americans were at Gainesville High School and 569 remained at Lincoln High School.
The white schools were superior to the black schools, right? Why would white schools have to make any changes at all after black students started attending?
Under Coach Jim Niblack, GHS was quick to recruit black athletes. The school became a football power that played out-of-state teams. African Americans, including girlfriends and families of black players, came to the games.
At halftime, the band still struck up “Dixie.” Black fans recall being harassed; either they stood with everyone else or chose to sit quietly and absorb whatever comments came their way. But black athletes also led off the field in melding black and white students into a more cohesive community.
The GHS band dropped “Dixie” during the 1968-1969 school year, according to The Sun. A source told me that the Confederate flag on the sidewalk was removed the same year; it was later repainted and had to be removed again.
In January 1970, on motion of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Alachua County to operate a unitary school system. There would be no white schools, no black schools, just schools. The Defense Fund sought full desegregation by September 1969; delays caused by some resistant school districts caused it to come in the middle of the 1969-1970 school year.
Under Alachua County’s court-approved desegregation plan, two identical new high schools were to be built on the east and west sides to serve both white and black students. Lincoln was to become a compensatory education and vocational center (the court later held that using Lincoln for optional compensatory programs would perpetuate segregation; the School Board removed compensatory education rather than forcing both white and black students to attend those programs).
The new schools were not ready. So, the 569 Lincoln students found themselves at GHS in February 1970, with about 2,600 other white and black students on double sessions. There was no time to rethink GHS as an integrated school. There was immediate tension.
According to a white student, the Lincoln students had agreed they would not protest at GHS unless “they raised the Rebel flag, and then we’re going to act.” The occasion presented itself on March 26, 1970. A black student previously expelled was cleared of robbery and assault charges by the state attorney, and was readmitted.
As reported later, 20-40 white students decided to protest. They paraded around with a Confederate flag singing “Dixie.” They tried to raise the flag on a school flagpole.
Coach Niblack and the principal, Joseph Hudson, took the flag down and herded the white students into the auditorium. But many students had left their classrooms and fighting escalated into a full riot, estimated by police to involve 300 to 400 of the 2,000 11th and 12th graders on campus for the morning session.
Wayne Mosley, the Lincoln student body president, led an unsuccessful 11-day strike in November 1969 by Lincoln students to keep Lincoln open as an academic high school. The strike brought concessions by the School Board, including appointing all Lincoln teachers to comparable positions at other secondary schools.
Fifty years later, memory of those stressful times can be deceiving. Wayne believes that there was a daily flag-raising ceremony accompanied by “Dixie” at GHS. I know of no supporting evidence. Had there been such a ceremony, I believe there would have been protests long before March 26, 1970.
For everything that happened at GHS during those years, there is much blame to go around, but also gratitude to the many people inside and outside the schools who tried to make desegregation work. Let’s not let a sincere but probably misremembered story about Confederate symbols detract from our recollection of the 50th anniversary of the unitary school system.
Michael T. Gengler, a 1962 graduate of GHS, is the author of “We Can Do It, A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation” about Alachua County (https://wecandoitbook.com).