BRADENTON -- As the first black teacher in Manatee County to teach in what used to be white-only schools, Dorothy Middleton remembers a surprisingly pleasant experience.
“The whole time, I never had any problems,” says Middleton, now 80, who taught from 1969 through 1975 at Palma Sola, Prine and Miller elementary schools. “The parents were all so nice. I never experienced any bad words, nothing. The students would send me things. I still have some of the presents that one of the kids gave me.”
Even while recalling blatant cases of racism -- like the time a little boy asked his white teacher who Middleton was -- Middleton maintains a smile.
“She told him, ‘She’s a teacher just like I am,’” Middleton remembers. “And he said, ‘Well, I never knew they had niggeroes for teachers.’ It was so innocent. He didn’t know what he was saying. He was just repeating what he heard.”
Her empathetic, yet strong-minded approach to education is what several of her colleagues and friends remember about Middleton, who was born and raised in Bradenton and left only long enough to earn her teaching certificate at an Ohio college.
“She was outspoken on behalf of integration and helped it along,” said former superintendent Gene Witt, a close friend of Middleton’s, who was a principal and district administrator during Middleton’s 30-year career in the school district. “She was a good professional and good friend.”
School board Chairman Harry Kinnan, whose mother Marge was a close friend of Middleton’s, says Middleton was a role model for other teachers.
“She was one of the people who was so instrumental in what is happening in education today,” Kinnan said. “She’s someone upon whose shoulders many of the young professionals stand today.”
Middleton was chosen by Florine Abel, then the “superintendent of Negro education,” to lead integration because of her strong record as a reading specialist, Middleton said.
“Every kid I ever taught learned how to read,” Middleton said. “That’s why I don’t understand why we have kids today who don’t know how to read. I think it’s about going back to the basics.”
Middleton’s approach was to focus on Dolch’s list of 220 essential words, a collection of words identified in the 1930s as key to English fluency. Middleton would put her students through drill after drill, and would ensure reading was the classroom focus every morning and every afternoon.
While integration in the schools was relatively painless for Middleton, she does have memories of how segregation affected Bradenton as a community. Middleton can recall how she and her black friends were not allowed to sit down in the cafe at the old Woolworth’s store downtown, and how the department store downtown required black customers, but not white customers, to line hats with paper before trying them on.
Middleton’s daughter Kimm has harsh memories of segregation.
“I remember how my doctor’s office had a colored waiting room, which was just a little closet with a few chairs in it. We would all be cramped into that little room.
“One day somebody opened the door to the white waiting room, and I remember seeing this lavish room with lots of nice chairs and lots of space.”
Kimm Middleton also remembers some difficult experiences as one of the earliest students to attend integrated schools. She recalls how the white kids in her class used to throw her valentine’s day cards in the trash, how humiliated she was when her music teacher taught her class to sing an “old slave song about picking cotton,” and how she was automatically assigned to a low-level reading class at the white school she attended even though she was able as a kindergartner to read at a third-grade level.
She remembers how her older brother was forbidden to join the Boys Club at the integrated school he attended, and how another brother was forbidden from joining the West Coast Symphony despite being an accomplished oboe and French horn player.
“We were on the front lines as kids,” Kimm Middleton says. “We went through a lot. It was hard, because even as a little kid, you know when people don’t like you.”
Even after integration, Manatee County’s school system wasn’t always welcoming to blacks, Dorothy Middleton recalls. S
he was chosen to be the supervisor of exceptional student education in the mid 1970s, and for most of the 20-plus years she held that position, Middleton says, she and the janitor were the only black employees in the building.
But to this day, she refuses to feel bitter about her experiences.
“It didn’t make any difference to us, even though we knew it was wrong,” she says. “I just know I loved every minute of it. I loved teaching, and I loved teaching reading.”
Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached on Twitter @chawesreports, or at 941-745-7081.