By Dr. Thomas Clyburn
In 1963, I became a test case for school integration in Sarasota, starting the first day of the school year as one of only two black students at Sarasota High School. I lived a few miles from my former school, the all-black Booker High, and had always walked to school, but now I was to be bussed from Booker to Sarasota High. That first day was one of the most challenging of my life.
Most of the Booker kids had headed off to their classes when a large Bluebird school bus pulled up in front of the school. The door opened, and the driver, an older black man, called out my name. “I am Mr. Graham,” he said, “and I’m here to take you to school.” I climbed on the bus. Then it hit me: I am all alone! I felt a mountain of nervousness in my belly, like I was stepping into a void of darkness, with no familiar references or boundaries. My heart started to race and I could feel my pulse in my throat. Sitting in the middle of the big empty bus, I had no one to talk to but the driver. But he was busy navigating the traffic, so we didn’t speak.
As we headed south on Washington Boulevard. I saw familiar landmarks, and that gave me some self-assurance. There was 27th Street, where my friends and I would hang out on weekends or summer days to buy food or listen to music or hear some of the old guys tell us war stories. We quickly passed 19th Street, the access point to public housing and where I lived. Then we passed 10th Street, where Woodlawn Cemetery is located and my father had been buried a few years before. And before I knew it, I saw an old, statuesque building, Sarasota High School, on my left.
There were so many cars in the parking lot. “Wow,” I thought, “a lot of teachers must work here.” I was stunned when I later learned that the cars really belonged to the students. None of my friends and few of their families could afford cars. No one had prepared me for how big this school was, with so many students—or for the backlash I was about to receive when I walked through the front door.
As the bus door opened, Mr. Graham turned to me and said, “Good luck, and I will see you after lunch.” Feeling increasingly nervous, I climbed out and stood still for a moment. As I began to slowly walk forward, I could see heads turning and eyes focusing on me. I realized that like me, this was the first time these students had ever been this close to a classmate of another race. There was shock on the faces of many.
As I entered the building, the buzz of conversations turned to dead silence. Now I really felt my heart throbbing. The hallway was so quiet that I could hear my own footsteps as I walked across the wooden floor to the office. I understood what Moses must have felt like, raising his staff to part the Red Sea, as the students in front moved to either side, away from me.
With every step I took, my world was changing. This would be the first day, one of many, that I experienced racial taunts and threats, often hurled out of the second-story windows—along, sometimes, with objects—as I left the campus to catch my bus back to Booker. I would play deaf, ignoring their name calling, and while I was often afraid, I was tough enough not to let them see that by keeping a blank stare on my face, and never looking down at the floor when passing them in the hallway. I stayed focused on my schoolwork and getting out there every day.
I always felt safer when I got back on the bus with Mr. Graham. He realized what I was going through when most others did not. He told me not to quit school since I was making history, history for all of the other black students who would follow me and those yet not born; and that it was important for me to complete this mission successfully. That simple conversation with a simple man helped me realize that what seemed like an ordeal was an opportunity. My personal world—and my perception of the world—had forever changed. And I would be the catalyst for change for many others.
After a career in psychology in Minnesota, Thomas W. Clyburn, Ph.D., recently retired to Sarasota.