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Thomas Clyburn, One Of Sarasota High's First African American Students, Speaks Out

Man speaks with microphone in front of him. Another man and a young woman listen to him.
Thomas Clyburn, right, speaks to WUSF's Mark Schreiner and USF student journalist Destiny Liddle about his experiences as one of the first two African American students at Sarasota High School. SONU TRIVEDI/UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA

In 1963, Thomas Clyburn was summoned to the principal's office at Sarasota's Booker High School. He thought he was in trouble - instead, he was being asked to transfer to Sarasota High School, where he became one of the school's first two African American students.

As part of our Telling Tampa Bay Stories series on Newtown, Clyburn shared what that experience was like.

LISTEN:

Thomas Clyburn:

This bus pulls up, bus driver's name was Carter, Robert Carter.

He says, “Thomas?”

“Yes, sir.”

He says, “Get on the bus, I’m taking you to school.”

I said, “Where's the others?”

“You're it.”

We started riding south, going towards Sarasota High School. I didn't know where I was going, I don't know anything, just knowing I was going to a different school. (We) passed by where my dad was buried, cemetery, and (I’m) thinking, “Wow, this is going to be really important.”

I can feel my heart – pum pum – just pumping pretty hard.

And he drives around a circle of the cars to the opening of the entryway to the main building, and he says, “I'll see you later, I'll pick you up after school.”

Door opens and all these kids are standing around talking. I step off the bus, one step, and everything stops. All the kids’ heads turn around, not another word was being said. I walk up slowly and open the door and they were still standing there as I walk further and further down the hall, until I ran into the administration building door, walked in, sat down, and told them who I was and I met my homeroom teacher, went to his classroom, and there I was for the first day and it was like that for a period of days, weeks.

And I remember trying to walk back to the bus. Kids were throwing crap out of the window at me and calling me all kinds of names and “go back to Africa, blah, blah, blah,” calling me the N-word.

I used to come in the north side (of the school) so I wouldn't face all that going through the hallway in the mornings and ended up sitting in my classroom alone, as always. And then I look out the window, I’m on the fourth floor, there’s a kid walking up with a German Shepherd.

And next thing I know I hear a pow – gunshot, a gunshot was fired through the bathroom next to where I was sitting, through the wall to me, and the bullet went behind me.

And before I knew it, there were four adult men racing in the room – one of them was the principal, he said, “Get up, don't say a word. Stay inside of us. We're going to run to my office, you will sit in there.”

I got up, ran to this office. He locked down the school, looking for that kid and the dog.

And he said something prophetic that day, about that experience for me. He said, “This will not be another Selma, (Alabama) this won't happen in this school.”

That unnerved me, and eventually I stopped going for about two or three weeks to the school. I always stayed at Booker where I was feeling safe.

And finally, (the) Sarasota High School principal must have called (the) principal at Booker and said, “We need to talk to you.”

And I went into the principal's office and he said, “What's going on?”

And I said, “Well, I don't want to go to school anymore because, you know, they're doing things to me and I don't want to be killed.”

He says, “Well, you know, you're breaking ground, you want to be doing something new that the world's going to change around, and you're the start of it all.”

And I really reluctantly got on the bus, the bus driver said, “What's going on?”

And I told him what's happening. He said, “I tell you what, we're going to do something today. We're going to go someplace and talk.”

We passed the school, and we drove all the way down to Venice. We sat on the beach, watching the waters go back and forth, and he said to me, “Tell me a story.”

I said, “I don't really want to go there anymore. These people don't like me. They don't want me around and I don't want to be there because I can get hurt.”

He says, “Let me tell you something – you're breaking ground. You're making history that you don't realize - you're going to be doing something more powerful than any person can do to you. You're going to change the world.”

And I thought about it and really didn't want to do it. He says, “Give it a shot. Trust me, we'll keep an eye on things for you.”

And sure enough, I got back to school – didn't change much.

I know things were happening out there in a real world, there was a lot of violence, riots and all of this and cops water-hosing people down.

What was really interesting and I'm, again, 16 years old, I don't know all the facts around this - there were young people making these changes.

It wasn't the old folks, young people were making the changes. They were the ones getting the butts kicked, watered down, in jail. They were the ones making the changes and I was part of that mixture, I just didn't realize it at the time.

Telling Tampa Bay Stories is an annual series WUSF has produced for the past four years that highlights different communities around the region people may not always hear about. We tell these stories with help from the people who call these places home. This year focuses on Newtown, one of the first African American communities in Sarasota.

The series is produced in partnership with University of South Florida journalism students. WUSF reporter Mark Schreiner and USF student Destiny Liddle produced this story, which was transcribed by USF student Ti'Anna Davis. Conversations were recorded at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Newtown.