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Last class of all-black Stone High marks 50-year reunion

Caroline Glenn , FLORIDA TODAY Published 6:24 p.m. ET July 8, 2017 | Updated 6:52 p.m. ET July 8, 2017

Year after year, fewer and fewer students from the last graduating class of the old Stone High are left to tell the stories of one of Brevard County’s once all-black high schools.

From the Class of 1967 — the last class before schools were integrated — 41 of the 73 students have passed away, and will be remembered this weekend as their classmates come together for a 50-year reunion. Principal U.F. Gibbs and Vice Principal H.C. Bailey have also since passed.

“We were family,” said Sandra Pelham, who organized the reunion. “To be able 50 years later to return to our alma mater is a blessing.”

Pelham attended Stone High from kindergarten through 12th grade, because at the time, it was the only school for blacks from Eau Gallie to the south county line.

Pelham’s Class of ’67 — 20 of whom gathered at the site of their alma mater Saturday to swap memories and take photos — is the only group of students to complete all 13 grades at Stone. They stood in front of the doors to the gymnasium, where they had all long ago accepted their diplomas at graduation.

Back then, students could pay for school lunch with pocket change, take typing and homemaking classes, and cheered on the Fighting Gophers in football and basketball.

Through her research, Pelham recalls the school was home to phenomenal spellers who often won the spelling bee championship, a 65-piece marching band always in demand for parades throughout the county, and teachers and administrators who truly cared about their students.

But before the end of segregation, black students were treated differently than kids at the white schools. They used hand-me-down textbooks and sports uniforms from the white schools, and black teachers were paid less than their white colleagues.

“Well, we know we didn’t get all the things the other schools got,” said Raymond Byrd, who taught math and was the 1967 class sponsor at Stone. “It was the short end of the budget the black schools were getting.”

The discrimination, of course, extended outside school walls.

Forced to walk through a back alley and climb steps to a separate balcony for black people, students from Stone High picketed the old Van Croix Theater in 1967, as well as Coleman’s Drugstore on U.S. Highway 1, historical records show.

Despite the fact that students were segregated, Class of ’67 President William Murray said, “I don’t think it really weighed on us.” Attending an all-black school, he explained, meant being a part of a tight-knit community, where parents knew each other and students could get more one-on-one time with teachers. Murray’s mother, Bettye Murray, who has since passed, was the class mother.

The family-like feel resulted in consistently competitive academic and athletic programs.

“We worked hard. We had to,” said Byrd.

When schools began to integrate, Pelham remembers it was a bittersweet time.

“It was beautiful, but it was also bittersweet,” she said, “because we knew the school was closing after we left.”

And blending into a mixed community didn’t happen overnight. Byrd would give advice to his students headed to integrated schools: “Let them know you’re sharp.”

But many students who had played football, sang in the choir or played in the band at Stone High had a hard time getting involved at their newly integrated schools.

“The attitude was, ‘It’s not my school,'” Byrd remembered. “It took a while.”

The old high school structure — once a facility with nothing but a cafeteria, a library, a small office suite and 12 classrooms — still operates in Melbourne on University Boulevard, but now as Stone Magnet Middle School.

With nearly 900 kids, the school has certainly grown since it first opened in 1955, after the original Melbourne Vocational School burned down Christmas morning the year before.

Since then, the school has undergone several renovations, and this summer is getting a new air-conditioning system and roof repairs. And instead of hand-me-down textbooks, every kid gets a Macbook Air to do their classwork.

Classmates gathered at the school Saturday as part of their 50-year reunion, and later that night headed to the Crown Plaza Melbourne Oceanfront for dinner, dancing and more reminiscing.

Current Principal Misty Bland wants to make sure the kids remember their school’s history.

“It’s something that I make sure that they don’t forget,” she said. “I don’t want them to forget about it.”

Caroline Glenn is the Education Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact her at caglenn@floridatoday.com or 321-576-5933, or follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn and like “Education at Florida Today” on Facebook

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