When educator Clarence Walker arrived at Dillard High School in 1937, black children were in school only seven months a year. Tenth was the highest grade black students were allowed to reach. Hand-me-down textbooks from white schools were worn and outdated.
Jim Crow Fort Lauderdale didn’t know what was about to hit it. Yet change shouldn’t have been a surprise. A book written for the Old Dillard Museum, My Soul Is a Witness, lays out the impressive road of achievement that led Walker to Fort Lauderdale.
More than a decade earlier, Walker had arrived at a black school in Palatka where, among other privations, teachers were paid for only six months a year. In short order, he fixed that and other problems – making the institution Florida’s first accredited high school for blacks.
In 1928, he came to West Palm Beach and took over a black high school where his son, in sixth grade, was the oldest male. The rest were in the fields picking vegetables. He got the children back in classes and instituted a full curriculum, just as he had in Palatka. Students got four years of math, science, English and history with electives including economics, shop, music and gym.
Born in 1880 on an Ohio farm, Walker was the son of an ex-slave. A brilliant student, he earned his education degree at Ohio’s Wilberforce University, the first college to be owned and operated by African-Americans. He went on to teach at the Snow Hill Institute in Alabama, another historic black college, where he met his wife, also a teacher.
The school that would become Dillard opened in 1907 with six students in one room. It was torn down in 1910 and not rebuilt again until 1924, a four-room stucco building on Northwest Fourth Street with the words “Colored School” above the front door. In the interim years, classes went on in various churches and lodges.
After Walker arrived, it took him only two years to preside over the school’s first graduation ceremony - students completing a full 12 grades. Finally, Fort Lauderdale’s black students wouldn’t have to stay with relatives in Miami or West Palm Beach to get a full high school education.
Within five years, Walker brought the school up to full accreditation standards.
He put his philosophy forth in the Fort Lauderdale Daily News in 1939: “Let us join hands in training the youth to have respect for Fort Lauderdale, for idealism, for lawful obedience, for faithful service and for building up civic pride and friendship between the races … We are trying to do the same thing that the Tuskeegee Institute has done for masses of negroes of the South.”
Walker argued not only that blacks deserved an equal education, but also, as a Sun-Sentinel writer put it in a report on a 2007 Dillard reunion, that “black is beautiful.” The writer notes that Walker “took over at a time when entertainers used lye to ‘process’ the curls from their hair, and children, much like today, imitated their celebrity idols.”
An attorney from the class of 1944 recalls Walker’s view on that: “I remember a boy coming to school one day with his hair processed, and [Walker] sent him back home. He said, `You don't need to process your hair. Be proud of your hair.' That was way before ‘I'm black and I'm proud’ was popular."
Walker fought an ongoing battle with the city’s Board of Education for the right of black children to a full nine-month session. In 1941, Walker furtively helped his students stage a boycott, and the school board agreed to a full term. But the following year, influenced by the farm community who wanted black teens working the harvests, the board reversed its decision.
In 1942, Walker again led a boycott. And once again, he argued the case in a board meeting that went on for many hours. This time the board stood firm. Later that night, Walker suffered a heart attack. He was dead by morning.
After his death, Rev. Ivory Mizell, brother of pioneer physician Dr. Von Mizell, formed the Clarence C. Walker Civic League to carry on the fight. In 1946, the school board’s policy was reversed by a federal court order.
While today’s Dillard High was rebuilt across town, that historic building is still here – it’s now the Old Dillard Museum, and it sits next to Walker Elementary. It’s not only a national landmark, but a landmark in our city’s struggle for equality.