In the five decades since the walls of segregation in the Franklin County school system came tumbling down, there is usually much less said about Quinn High School, the African-American kindergarten through 12th grade school that once stood on the grounds of what is now the city municipal complex, than there is about the educational experiences in the two integrated schools, in Apalachicola and Carrabelle, and then the single consolidated school, that succeeded it.
But on Friday evening, Nov. 3, at a standing room only banquet at the Holy Family Center, the 22-year history of Wallace M. Quinn High School, from 1945 to 1967, was the focal point of fond memories.
With an enthusiastic audience of former students on hand, and a handful of their former teachers seated at a table of honor, the golden anniversary banquet paid loving tribute to the role the school had on so many lives.
“We’re not celebrating the closure of Quinn,” said Alfred Goosby, a retired Army officer and Quinn alumnus who helped organize the banquet, in his opening remarks. “We want to recognize the impact Quinn had on this county and the entire world.”
With Delores Croom as mistress of ceremonies, the affair filled each of the tables at Holy Family and then some, as it opened with the singing of “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” the poem by James Weldon Johnson considered the Negro National Anthem,
In his welcome, Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson acknowledged the banquet ”recognizes the contributions that so many of you have made in your respective communities since your presence graced the halls of Wallace M. Quinn High School.
“You represent an era where obtaining a good education was paramount in every African-American household throughout the nation, a quest that was shared by this local community, parents, teachers and students alike,” he said. “Whether you were part of the faculty, staff or a student, your era at Quinn High proved positive that a quality education was indeed achievable for African-American students at an all-black high school.
“After so many years, for me it really is a pleasure, but not surprising, to see many of you now doing exceptionally well,” Johnson said.
Following an invocation by Elder Valentina Webb, of Tabernacle of Faith, and Goosby’s words on the occasion, Mrs. Shirley Walker offered a memorial, through a lone lit candle, of all the many teachers, staff and students who have passed on.
That void was clear by those who looked carefully at the program listing the teachers, staff and seniors of the last graduating class.
Gone are Principal Willie Speed, math teacher Charles Watson, librarian Margaret Mays, lunchroom ladies Iona Dawson and Inez Miller, Mr. Thomas the bus driver and Mr. Robinson the custodian, and graduating senior Jerome Houston.
But on hand for the affair were phys ed teacher Lois Baker Miller, and her husband Leon; social studies teacher James Gautier and his wife Flossie; home economics teacher Retha McCaskill; coach Jarred Burns; teacher Barbara Gallon Woodward; and secretary Ella Speed.
'You name it, we could do it'
In her grace before the meal, Shirley White O’Neal, from the Love Center Church, offered her recollections of graduating with the six-member Class of 1959, five girls and one boy.
“These were some excellent days,” she said, recalling that hers was the first basketball group to play in the gym; others before had played on the outdoor blacktop court.
She recalled receiving a best sportsmanship award while playing for coach Miller, who sat at the head table with husband Leon. Miller taught at the school for nine years from 1956 to 1965, and coached the Tigers when they played against such teams as Port St. Joe’s Washington High School, Blountstown’s Mayhaw High School, and Panama City’s Rosenwald High School.
Seated in the audience, delighted to see her former coach, Eula Bennett Rochelle recalled playing guard and forward when she was in middle school, and once scoring 28 points.
“Her father came to my home and told me what a great job I was doing with these girls,” said Miller.
Following a meal of turkey and ham, prepared by Goosby’s wife Willa and a host of volunteers, the stirring voice of Angeline Stanley helped set the mood for the evening program, which began with an introduction by Myrtis Wynn of the speaker, FAMU professor and extension specialist Dr. Dreamal Worthen, who started at Quinn in 1958.
She recited the names of every one of her teachers, to underscore the tight bonds that bound the Quinn community.
“They made such an impression on us that 50 years later, we can recall every one of them,” said Worthen, noting that back in the late ‘50s, only fans were used to cool in the hot Florida weather.
“We didn’t have air conditioning and now we act like we can’t make it without it,” she said.
The gist of Worthen’s remarks addressed the solid foundation of learning upon which Quinn’s success rested.
“Everyone was reading when we started school,” she said. “We started school with a prayer and a Bible verse.
“They (the teachers) took that piece of coal and they turned it into diamonds,” said Worthen. “They made us believe that we were royalty, kings and queens. Our heads were held up high.
“Our teachers instilled in us that even though we came here in the bowels of a slave ship, we were part of America,” she said. “We grew sharper under excellent teachers who pushed us and believed in us. We believed just what they told us.
“You name it, we could do it, because teachers were telling us we could be successful,” Worthen said, describing the many assemblies and “excellent events” where classmates recited poems or performed plays.
“We must always remember to return to our foundations,” she said. “Our youth are in trouble. We were encouraged. They don’t necessarily get that encouragement.”
Worthen closed by referring to Proverbs 16:16 “How much better it is to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver.”
Teachers lauded for their work
Oryan Speed than offered special presentations to the former Quinn teachers who were on hand.
Honored were McCaskill, Miller, Woodward and Lorine Banks, a 1961 graduate of Alabama State, who got her first job out of college teaching third grade at Quinn. “I was working with teachers who had taught me,” she said.
Honored were Gautier, a social studies teacher and coach, who came straight out of college to take a job at Quinn.
Just 5 foot 5 inches tall and weighing 116 pounds, “ I looked like I was just out of eighth grade,” when he went to the district superintendent’s office for his interview, said Gautier.
“I wore a shirt and tie every day because I didn’t want to look like a student,” he said.
He paid tribute to principal Willie Speed and to Charles Watson. “You did whatever Mr. Speed said and you had to do more than one thing,” said Gautier.
McCaskill, who came to Quinn in 1952 and retired from the district in 1990, said she had never heard of Apalachicola when she first took the job.
“You made a deep imprint on my life I will always remember,” she told the students in attendance at the banquet from the Class of 1967 – Jerome Houston, Clifton Kirkland, Freddie McIntyre, Clatie Kirkland and Teresa Lockley.
Classmates Johnny Byrd, Mary Clay, James Henry, Ronnie Rhodes, Richard Sweet, Winfred Sweet, Charlie Mitchell and Joseph Jefferson, who was the first black student to attend Chapman High School, did not attend. George Mitchell was in town and stopped by to visit later.
Teacher and coach Burns, who came in August1965 for a year,, and then left to teach in Panama City before being called back to Franklin County, coached at Quinn in ’66 and ’67, encouraging such players as Goosby, McIntrye and Kirkland. He eventually retired from the county system in 1999 after 34 years in education.
Now married for 52 years, Burns told Rosa Tolliver, a member of the anniversary committee who presented him with an award, that “we had a wonderful time. I’m just enjoying my retirement, 18 years of it. May God bless you.”
Also honored was Rose McCoy, who graduated Quinn in 1953 and went on to a distinguished career as an educator at Chapman. She praised her “heroes,” Speed and Watson.
“They were two men who believed in the youth of Apalachicola and they made possible lots of opportunities,” she said. “They would help you get them.
“We had teachers who worked for the students who were entrusted to them,” McCoy. “Today, are they equally the kind of people who run over adversity to get the job done? I keep looking for those people who are the people who will continue the legacy of Willie speed or Charles Watson or Ruby Tampa. You got a lot to live up to and a lot to be proud of.”
Prior to O’Neal’s closing benediction, Goosby spoke of the need to preserve the legacy of Quinn by gathering photos and other mementoes that could be archived with the state’s Florida Memory project.
“We need to instill in our children that this place has a legacy,” he said. “This is not the end. We need to come back and give our best to Apalachicola.
”I’ve been a lot of places. I love this town,” he said.
“Our story will be told,” said Worthen. “I don’t think anybody can tell our story better than we can. You don’t know my story like I know it.”