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All Deliberate Delay: Desegregating the
Public Schools of Orange County, Florida

By: Brittany Bernstein
Mentor: Richard Crepeau

"As the county continued to evade desegregation, it became clear desegregating the school district would require legal intervention. Finally, in the summer of 1964, the Ellis parents received the court's first response to their suit. '"

In response, Francisco Rodriguez, NAACP attorney for the eight black parents, stated, "The Florida Pupil Assignment Law as it now reads is a totally inadequate remedy in view of the Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown case. We don't want token integration. We want it to be complete; as the law provides." If the board did not react promptly, Rodriguez was prepared to sue the county to compel desegregation. The Corner Cupboard reported that the board would be sued for "allegedly operating a segregated school system." The use of "allegedly," probably intended sarcastically, is indeed a dubious qualifier, considering the Florida Educational Directory, an official state-issued listing of all schools in Florida, continued to list Orange County's white schools and black schools separately until 1963.

In light of the county's inaction, on April 6, 1962 John P. Ellis, on behalf of his daughter Evelyn, and the seven other African-American parents sued the Board of Public Instruction of Orange County Florida "to compel integration in public schools." It would be almost two years before the first court order was issued in response to the suit.

In the meantime, the school board sent home a letter with every student, informing parents they had the right to request transfer to any school they wished before August 15. The letter read in part, "Any application you make will be given careful consideration." 24 Superintendent Kipp maintained his belief that black families were satisfied with the education system in Orange County and, at most, desired better school buildings and equipment. 25

By the August 14 deadline, the school board received 368 reassignment applications, 23 of which were filed by black parents seeking reassignment to a white school. Fifteen of the requests were granted and the remaining eight were denied. 26 Out of the anticipated 10,120 black students who began school in Orange County in 1962, only the handful of students who were allowed to transfer attended a biracial school. 27 The other students were informed an "honest and conscientious' process had clearly developed that the move would be illogical and impractical'." 28 Kipp reassured the board and the community that the county was "operating to such a degree that the possibility of a federal court order forcing integration" was remote. 29

As the county continued to evade desegregation, it became clear desegregating the school district would require legal intervention. Finally, in the summer of 1964, the Ellis parents received the court's first response to their suit.

On May 28, 1964, the Orange County School Board submitted a desegregation plan that satisfied the "prayers of the Plaintiffs." The court's final decree on June 9 found the plan to be "a fair and realistic one, considering the circumstances and conditions in the community, personnel and administrative problems, the efficient and harmonious operation of the school system itself, and at the same time, the constitutional requirements of deliberate speed." 30 The heart of the plan was detailed in the first section, which granted students the right to attend the school closest to their residence without regard to race or color, provided the request complied with several prerequisites, including "(a) Choice of the pupil's parent or guardian filed at a specified time. (b) Availability of capacity." Most importantly, requests had to conform to a schedule for gradual school desegregation by grade level. The schedule called for the desegregation of grades one, two, and seven during the 1964-65 school year, grades one through eight the following school year, grades one through eleven the next year, with grades one through twelve desegregated by the 1967-68 school year.

One of the most significant portions of the plan freed the school board from having to bus students to comply with transfer requests. The section reads, "Nothing herein shall be construed to obligate the board to use the transportation system to honor preference, transfers, or assignments requested by parents or guardians." 31 The plan also stated that race or color could no longer determine the location of new schools, the expansion of new facilities or the assignment of teachers and administrative personnel. Desegregation of the teaching staff was ordered to begin in the 1965-66 school year and continue every year thereafter. 32 A later court order in August 1971 stated the school board had fully complied with the court's 1964 order. 33

By the start of the 1965 school year, school officials reported 647 black students would attend school with white students. For the first time that year, ten previously all-white schools would enroll black students. The county expected total enrollment to reach seventy thousand students. 34

Not everyone was satisfied with the county's progress, however. In September of 1965, Rev. Henry McKinnon of the Taft Community Church accused the Orange County Public School System of racial bias. McKinnon strongly objected to the elimination of the sixth grade at Taft Elementary and the transfer of its students to Holden Heights Elementary almost eight miles away, and he charged that the school board refused to return his calls or hear his protests. When McKinnon had appeared before the school board in July he was told, "there was no intention to close the school or reduce the number of grades." School board member Kenneth Thigpen said he had "erred" when he told McKinnon no changes would be made. McKinnon felt the action was part of a plan to close the school completely, but maintained the community was growing sufficiently to keep the school open. 35 Ultimately, McKinnon's fears were realized and the following year the county closed the school entirely. 36

One of the most important rulings in the history of the Ellis case as well as one of the most significant cases to come before the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education of Alabama in 1967. The Jefferson ruling would eventually change the course of Orange County's Ellis case and the course of similar school desegregation suits in the South.

Jefferson was important for several reasons. It marked the beginning of greater judicial support for desegregation and also involved court supervision of public education. 37 Judge John Minor Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit decided the court would no longer tolerate thinly-veiled attempts to perpetuate segregation, such as pupil placement laws and freedom of choice plans. In Jefferson, Wisdom found, "The only adequate redress for a previously overt system-wide policy of segregation against Negroes as a collective entity is a system-wide policy of integration." 38 Most importantly, Wisdom developed a model school desegregation plan based on the guidelines developed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), an agency established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Entrusted with overseeing federal funding for public schools, HEW started setting specific desegregation requirements for school districts, which risked losing federal funding if they did not comply. 39 In Jefferson , Wisdom adopted guidelines established by HEW as minimum standards for a court order in the Fifth Circuit. 40

In light of the Jefferson decision, on April 25, 1967 Judge Young amended his original Ellis order to comply with the new ruling. Among other revisions, Young ordered the board to use buses to satisfy the requests of students. The order states, "Where transportation is generally provided, buses must be routed to the maximum extent feasible in light of the geographic distribution of students, so as to serve each student choosing any school in the system." 41

The revised plan also included a section on school equalization. The board was ordered to improve all previously all-black schools by taking "prompt steps necessary to provide physical facilities, equipment, courses of instruction, and instructional materials of quality equal to that provided in schools previously maintained for white students." 42 If those improvements were not possible, the school in question was to be closed and students were to be reassigned to the school of their choice. Furthermore, remedial education was to be offered to any student attending a previously segregated school to "overcome past inadequacies in their education." 43

Official school board reports were optimistic about the pace of progress in the county. The introduction to a 1967 "Report on the Status of the Orange County Public School System" declared, "School desegregation is being accomplished in an orderly manner in Orange County." The report reflects that as a result of the 1964 and 1967 court decrees, by the start of the 1967 school year fourteen percent of the county's black enrollment, or 1,740 students, were "in attendance at predominantly white schools." Furthermore, 128 black teachers and 35 white teachers taught in schools where their race was the minority. 44

Despite some initial progress, in December 1968, the Ellis plaintiffs sought further action to desegregate Orange County's schools based on the Fifth Circuit case Graves v. Walton County Board of Education (1968) . The Fifth Circuit had found, "there are still many all-Negro schools in this circuit, all of which are put to notice that they must be integrated or abandoned by the commencement of the next school year." 45

The school board initially submitted two unsatisfactory plans, but finally on March 11, 1969 a third plan, Plan C, was submitted to the court. However, the plaintiffs objected to its lack of specifics, what the court described as a "skeletal" plan. At the evidentiary hearing that began April 30, witnesses for the school board presented greater details of the plan, removing many of the plaintiffs' complaints

In a lengthy explanation, the school board described how closing several black schools would affect the school system and noted exactly how the racial composition would change at remaining schools. The plan also committed the board to desegregating the county's faculty and promised "all formerly all-Negro schools will have biracial faculties and every school will have at least three teachers of the race which is in the minority at that school." 46

Eleven of the county's 106 schools were to remain completely black, including ten elementary schools and one junior high school. The board maintained rezoning would not have effectively desegregated those eleven schools and justified the exemption by citing legal precedents that gave the court the right to develop a desegregation plan according to the county's unique circumstances. Furthermore, the court maintained the county no longer had an identifiable dual system because the county's transportation system and extracurricular activities were completely desegregated and the school board was working toward desegregating the schools' faculties as well.

In conclusion, the court asserted the Orange County School Board had demonstrated its "good faith" in the past and there was "no reason to believe that the board will not earnestly endeavor to accomplish the objectives of Plan C." 47

Later the same year, two more court rulings would again change the course of the Ellis case and all other desegregation cases in the South. The Supreme Court case Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education and the Fifth Circuit case Singleton v. Jackson Municipal Separate School District would finally compel the district court to order the Orange County School Board to operate a unitary school system.

In September 1969, the Supreme Court decided in Alexander the Court could no longer tolerate further delay in implementing school desegregation and the all-deliberate speed decree had expireddesegregation must be implemented "at once." 48 In January, 1970 the Supreme Court even more precisely defined the desegregation timetable. Carter v. West Feliciana Parish School Board placed an expiration date on complying with the Alexander ruling. The Carter case ruled that all school districts had to complete full faculty and student desegregation by February 1, 1970. Carter reaffirmed the mandate set forth in Alexander , stating it was "the obligation of every school district to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools." 49 Most importantly, Carter went further than Alexander and concretely defined "at once" as February 1, 1970. 50

The Fifth Circuit established specific guidelines for the faculty desegregation that was to take place by February 1 in the December, 1969 Singleton case. 51 Although Singleton included many sections, the most important part provided for a fixed ratio of white teachers and staff to black teachers and staff at each school in a district. All schools in a district had to reflect the same ratio as present in the entire school system. 52 In Orange County, where eighty percent of the district's faculty was white and twenty percent was black, the faculty at each and every school had to be eighty percent white and twenty percent black. 53

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