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They taught schools a lesson in equality

For Black History Month, the Orlando Sentinel'sJeff Kunerth looks at the lives and legacy of those who opened the door to integration in Orlando.

Today: How the families came to file the lawsuit.

In 1962, the congregation of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church met in an aged, one-story wood building so weakened by termites that the high heels of female parishioners sank into the floorboards as they walked down the center aisle. The church was heated by a lone wood stove set amid the pews. The pews themselves were old, their varnish worn from 30ƒ|years of worship.

But as the oldest black church in Orlando, Mount Zion had status within the black community. And its pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Staggers, had stature among blacks and whites. He was a member of the Orange Branch of the NAACP and belonged to the coterie of black businessmen and clergy who met with white city officials to discuss the concerns of blacks in Orlando.

So when lawyer Constance Baker Motley of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People came looking for black families willing to join a lawsuit to end segregation in Orange County public schools, she found what she was looking for at Mount Zion. Her efforts were part of a campaign to force Southern school districts to comply with U.S. Supreme Court rulings and end "separate but equal" schools for black and white children.

Staggers was a large, imposing man with no children of his own and little formal schooling himself. But he was as strong an advocate for education as he was for civil rights.

"He was really ahead of his time, our time," recalled Dorothy Fluitt, who joined Mount Zion in 1955. "Some people have the gift of how to lead people, and he was that type of person who believed his people should move forward."

The eight families the Rev. Staggers recruited from Mount Zion were the local foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement. One was an educator. One was a church secretary. One was a truck driver. One was a store clerk. Two were homemakers, and two were maids.

Their stories, how they came to join the lawsuit and what became of them is a lesson in ordinary people affecting extraordinary change.

Just as significant are the stories of their 10 children --- who they were, what happened to them and where they are now.

Their lives measure how much is different from the days of segregation, and how much is left undone. All speak to the still evolving relationships in America between blacks and whites.

Orange: What segregation?

Orange and Volusia counties were among the five school districts Motley filed desegregation lawsuits against in 1962. By 1970, the segregated school systems in 33 of Florida's 67 counties were being challenged in court.

The lawsuit filed by the eight families from Mount Zion against the Board of Public Instruction of Orange County was surprisingly simple. It made no mention of hand-me-down textbooks and beat-up musical instruments; or crumbling schools; or a lack of playgrounds, landscaping and other amenities found in white schools.

It just asked that children and teachers in Orange County no longer be assigned to schools based on race: black students and black teachers to black schools, white children and white teachers to white schools.

The school board's response --- found in court transcripts of depositions taken in 1962 --- was the blatant denial that segregated schools even existed in Orange County.

"What you are saying, as a matter of law, you do not have a segregated system?" black attorney Earl M. Johnson asked school-board member Kenneth Patrick Folks.

"Yes, sir," Folks replied.

"Well, let's discuss the facts of the matter. Do you have any Negroes attending white schools?" Johnson said.

Folks responded, "Let me ask you this, sir: Will you give me the definition of a Negro?"

"I am one," Johnson said.

In her deposition, school-board Chairwoman Florence Fishback argued that under the Florida Pupil Assignment Act of 1956, any parent could request that a student attend a different school. School integration, then, was the responsibility of the parents --- not the school system.

"Therefore, the burden of changing the system from one to the other would be on the students or his parents, is that correct?" asked the families' attorney, Francisco A. Rodriquez.

"Well, I would assume so. I don't know who else could do it," Fishback responded. "We can't go out and say, 'Please, you go to another school.'"

The Pupil Assignment Law was a ruse, historians said. Passed in 1955 by the Florida Legislature in compliance with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, it did the exact opposite.

The law gave school boards the authority to deny requests from black parents who wanted to send their children to white schools and gave white parents a reason to request transfers should blacks be admitted to white schools.

"The Pupil Assignment Law had all kinds of provisions to keep schools segregated without saying so," said Charles U. Smith, a retired FAMU sociology professor and co-author of The Civil Rights Movement in Florida and the United States.

"It gave local school boards the authority to do things that would result in continuing racial segregation based on the safety of children, the health of children, the welfare of the children and forestalling violence," he said.

John P. Ellis was one of the parents whose request to transfer his daughter, Evelyn Ellis, to an all-white high school was denied. It is her name that remains to this day on the lawsuit to desegregate Orange County schools: Evelyn R. Ellis, et al., vs. the Board of Public Instruction of Orange County, Florida.

Still under court orders

Today, that lawsuit from 1962 continues to impact the classrooms of Orange County --- one of 16 school systems in Florida still under court supervision.

An estimated 280 school districts, most of them in the South, remain under federal-court orders.

Despite efforts during the past four decades to integrate its schools, Orange is the only district in Central Florida that has not received "unitary status" from the federal courts --- the declaration that all vestiges of the segregated system have been abolished.

An estimated 14,700 districts have been declared integrated by federal courts. Orange County School Board officials are pursuing that designation and hope to receive it this year --- 46 years after the initial lawsuit.

Though the lawsuit remains, the old wooden church where the Rev. Staggers preached and the eight families worshipped is gone. A month before the lawsuit was filed, the congregation christened the new, grand, two-story brick church beside it, built solely with the donations of its congregation.

The brick church stands as the lasting legacy of the Rev. Nathaniel Staggers. The integrated schools of Orange County stand as the lasting legacy of his eight parishioners and their 10 children.

Jeff Kunerth can be reached at 407-420-ƒo5392 or jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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