When Dee Hall was young, she couldn’t eat in restaurants, but she could order food to go. She couldn’t swim at Flagler Beach, but she could travel south to a small stretch of beach reserved for black people.
She was born in 1954. Since then, things have changed a lot — so much that sometimes, she can hardly believe it. Hers was a lifetime of change.
When she started school, there was no public kindergarten for black students. She attended a private program at the old school house in Espanola, which her parents helped support by paying a small weekly fee, a kind of informal tuition.
But by the time she graduated from high school, her class of about 75 students was both black and white. Her 1974 ceremony hosted the first black commencement speaker in Flagler’s history.
Flagler County was part of the last wave of counties in Florida to integrate its school system, and desegregation only came when a federal mandate forced it. Otherwise, Hall doesn’t think it would have ever happened. People were set in their ways.
It was a journey of tension, but ultimately, the schools became a meeting ground for black and white students, who were able to establish with one another feelings of mutual respect.
“We all became a big family,” Hall said. “We had a ball, really.”
A clash of societies
When Jay Rodgers was in sixth grade, the Flagler County School District had enacted voluntary integration: black students who chose to could leave the all-black George Washington Carver High School to attend the white school, Bunnell High School.
It was the late 1960s. Many — Hall included — believe the voluntary system seemed a way to adhere to the integration of schools happening throughout the country while still maintaining segregated.
When a handful of high-achieving black students came to Rodgers’ sixth-grade class, the black students kept to themselves. As the trailblazers of integration, they were under a lot of scrutiny. They also faced jeers from their white peers, but overall, the change was minimal.
Then, in 1970, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a court order that required full integration. George Washington Carver High School was closed, and the county’s black students started school that fall at Bunnell High School.
It was tense. This was one of the last districts in the country to integrate, and Jay Rodgers had seen television broadcasts of the riots the changes brought. He remembered the first day of school under voluntary integration. His father had a business in the black section of town, so he knew some of the black students who came to school. Unlike some of his classmates, he knew black kids lived much the same lives as he did, with many of the same worries.
“But because things were so separated,” Rodgers said, “it really was a clash of two societies.”
As recess approached, he was torn. He knew his white friends wouldn’t approve if he played with his black friends.
“I knew in my heart what was right, but as a kid, nobody wants to be provocative or world-changing. I just wanted to get along with my classmates.”
He resolved to stay away from his black friends at recess — he knew they would understand — but when recess came, he couldn’t do it.
“In the end, I was very happy they were there,” he said. “They were my friends.”
But he paid for his actions. He was identified by his classmates as a “nigger lover,” and from then on, he learned to play only with his white friends at school. It was wrong, he knew, but it was the way things were.
So when forced integration came, Rodgers was nervous. Everyone was. Nobody knew what would happen.
The students filed into their classrooms. Things were quiet, but Rodgers thought they seemed to be going well. Then he looked out the window.
The parking lot was full of cars. White parents and community members had gathered outside, some holding guns; others, Confederate flags.
Unsure whether the crowd, which was spitting insults, would escalate into a riot, the school was closed for the day and police broke up the crowd. But in Flagler, there was no fighting it. Once the federal government stepped in, people knew integration was coming, welcomed or not. It’d been put off as long as possible, but things were changing. The next day, the parking lot was filled only with staff and students.
School under fire
During the summer after forced integration, Bunnell High School burned down. Nobody has ever been charged with setting it on fire officially, but around town, most believed the fire was set intentionally.
The district was scattered as a new school, later called Flagler Palm Coast HIgh School, was built. Classes were held wherever there was room for them. For Rodgers, that meant going to George Washington Carver High School.
“In a way, it was ironic,” Rodgers said. “First, black students were the outsiders. Then, I was the outsider.”
Just as Rodgers had seen his white classmates make black classmates feel unwelcome at Bunnell High School, he felt the same pushback from black students at George Washington Carver High School. Despite integration, that was still the “black school.”
But things changed quickly. Insults in the hallways soon turned into friendships. The town of Bunnell stayed tense, but the situation defused in the classroom. After administration mandated an alphabetized seating chart, black and white students were forced to mix with each other.
And that meeting helped students of either race learn that they weren’t so different. The stereotypes they had heard about each other weren’t true.
The tension that remained came mostly from parents. Hall remembers her family going to a white friend’s house, where neighbors raised a fuss.
Rodgers remembers saying goodbye to some of his classmates who were sent to boarding schools in the Carolinas to avoid attending an integrated school.
But things were changing.
“We became a bit radical,” Hall said.
Her junior year of high school, the School Board refused to host a prom. They were worried about trouble starting, or about what might happen if a black boy wanted to dance with a white girl. To Hall and her classmates, this was ludicrous: They had already overcome the taboo of interracial dating.
“Some people’s minds are never going to change,” Hall said. “But we got to know each other, and we got to be friends with each other, and we weren’t going to let things stay the way they were.”
So, the student body hosted their own prom. It was, Hall said, a ball.
The next year, the School Board approved a prom. Things were getting better.
Hope for the future
Rodgers looked around at his graduating class. It was 1975. His black friends mixed with his white friends, hugging and congratulating one another as if race were no big deal. To them, it wasn’t.
The change was tangible. Years before, when he was called “nigger lover” on his playground, the situation seemed hopeless; the hatred in society too deeply permeated. Of course, things weren’t perfect. But the struggles he saw in older people were lessened for those his age. The tensions among people his own age were lessened in those younger than him.
“There’s something about it that gives you hope for the future,” he said. “You know that no matter what we’re facing, from the struggles that I faced, that we all faced, we can look back on it and say, ‘We got past that.’ There is a better part of us that comes out in times of tension.”
As for Hall, racial tension remained a struggle throughout her life. When she started working, certain community members wouldn’t speak to her if she answered the phone at work. But now, she tells her children stories about growing up in Flagler County, and they hardly believe her. They can’t comprehend a world where black people aren’t allowed to eat in restaurants or use the same beach as white people. To her, that’s the victory.
“It was an awful, awful feeling,” Hall said, “to know that you couldn’t walk in somewhere and be treated a certain way because of the color of your skin. But we learned. We learned to respect each other. We learned to see each other as humans.”