Belle Glade principal believed you have to stand up for what is right

LOS ANGELES — As Father’s Day 2019 approached, Dr. Ron McCurdy found himself thinking back to his roots in Belle Glade, Fla., and more specifically, of his father — a man who believed you have to stand up for what you feel is right, no matter what the repercussions might be. Born in 1913, his father, Charles M. McCurdy, grew up with Jim Crow, in a time when African-Americans were being lynched and, if you complained, you could find yourself in jeopardy, said Dr. McCurdy. As time passed, things changed, but not everything.

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Charles M. McCurdy was a principal for more than 20 years. This picture was from the Lake Shore yearbook in 1964.

The McCurdy family moved to Belle Glade in 1944, and at that time, the school system only extended education to fifth grade for African-American children. You see, explained Dr. McCurdy, the thinking at that time was that most of the children would not need an education beyond that because they were going to work in the fields. It wasn’t until 1945 that Mary McLeod Bethune went to Eleanor Roosevelt and asked her to lobby her husband for funding to extend schools for black children through 12th grade. She was successful, and in 1945 or ’46, the schools in Belle Glade began going through 12th grade. Finally in 1955, Lake Shore High School was built, and Dr. McCurdy’s father became principal. He had come from a small town called The Projects a few miles away, and had been the principal of a small school there.

Belle Glade was a migratory town in those days, he said. School usually started in September, but most of the population didn’t return until mid-October because the children went up north with their families, following the crops. When Dr. McCurdy’s father arrived, he recognized that Belle Glade was an environment that would be quite challenging, because education among African-Americans was not encouraged even by the parents. The parents themselves were not educated, so they didn’t care about their children embracing education and knowledge. His father’s plan, when he came to Belle Glade, was to instill a desire in everyone, not just the students, but the adults too, to embrace education and knowledge. He set up night schools for parents to come back and get their high school diplomas. Some took advantage — many didn’t. Working in the field was backbreaking work — from sun up to sundown, so they were too tired, but some did embrace it.

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Lake Shore High School was built in 1955, and Charles McCurdy became principal. He always placed academics above everything else for his students.

“My father’s thinking was, if he could empower this population with knowledge then they could take part in the so-called American dream too, because he understood that knowledge was power — knowledge gave you the opportunity to have options in your life. So that was his mantra — his whole mission. Lake Shore high school had a great sports team. We had a band. We had art. We had drama. We had debate. We had all the things the other schools had, but we were still functioning at a different level, because all the school textbooks were the hand-me-downs from Belle Glade High School which was predominantly white or probably all white school. The condition of the building was different. The quality of the facilities was different, but that didn’t deter my father. He was determined to make it work. He was a strict, by-the-book kind of a guy. He had a dress code for the students and faculty. Females were to wear dresses below their knees. Males had to tuck their shirts in their trousers. Male teachers had to wear ties. These policies seem extreme and archaic now, but his thinking was you’ve got to dress for success. Teachers need to look like they came in to work. Students need to come with a mindset that they were there to learn,” said Dr. McCurdy.

In 1954, due to the landmark legal case of Brown versus Board of Education, the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate with all deliberate speed, but it was another 14 years before it actually came to Belle Glade. Initially it was a choice option, where students in town had a choice to attend Belle Glade High which was the white school, or they could go to Lake Shore. “Well, no white kid came to Lake Shore, and very few black kids went to Belle Glade, and that wasn’t what the courts had in mind. It didn’t satisfy the idea of desegregating the schools,” he said. So, his senior year in high school, which was 1971, there was forced integration. The black school, Lake Shore, was converted into a middle school and vocational school. Belle Glade High School became Glades Central. His father thought he would be the heir apparent because the white principal wanted nothing to do with desegregation and left the school district. Since Dr. McCurdy’s father was the senior principal in town, he had been principal for more than 20 years, he thought surely they would appoint him. But, they chose a white man with very little experience instead. His father was demoted to the junior high, and his salary was slashed.

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The McCurdy siblings still enjoy spending time together. Pictured left to right are Peter, Reva, Ron and Carol.

When this happened, Dr. McCurdy was a junior in high school. He said he watched as his father became more and more of a recluse. He began smoking again, and started drinking alcohol and eating bad foods. He was diabetic and had hypertension. His father was not the only black principal this happened to when the schools were desegregated, he said, but many of them had the mindset that at least they had a job. He said some had the attitude of “I’m just going to be a good Negro and not say anything, but my father was not going to do that. He knew there would be repercussions, but he decided to sue the school board.”

“Looking back on it 47 years later as an old man — I have my AARP card now — I realize I was almost oblivious to what my father was dealing with, how difficult it was for him to do this,” he said. “When Superintendent Maynard went before the judge he asked him why he had given my father superior ratings almost every year while he was principal of Lake Shore High School, but as soon as he decided to sue the school board, he began receiving subpar ratings. Superintendent Maynard looked the judge in the eye and said ‘well, look, he was fine to be the principal of a Negro school, but he is not qualified to be principal with white children and teachers.’ That statement basically proved my father’s case,” he said.

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Ron McCurdy and his sister Reva enjoy playing dress up in 1958.

In August 1974, his father was reinstated as principal of Glades Central, and he had great plans. He wanted to make sure academics came before athletics, but a week before classes began, he died of a heart attack.

Now, Glades Central consistently performs very low academically every year, Dr. McCurdy said, and he believes his father would have been very sad about that. “Football is great, but at best, you have three or four years. What will you do for the rest of your life if you don’t have an education?” he asked.

As he sat thinking of his father, he said he thought about how much things have changed. “A lot of things are better now,” he said, “but a lot of things still need work.” He was watching President Trump’s speech on television when a group of White Supremacists walked right across the arena. It made him think of one of the last things his father ever said to him, ”You can change laws, but you cannot legislate people’s hearts.”

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Before he was Dr. McCurdy, he was Principal McCurdy’s young son, and he enjoyed spending time in his father’s office at Lake Shore High School. This picture was taken in 1958.

Dr. McCurdy’s sisters Reva and Carol and his brother Peter have all retired and still live in Florida, but Dr. McCurdy teaches music, culture and history at the University of Southern California. He loves his job and does not consider it work.

Who in your community inspires you? Nominate someone to be featured in this column! Email Cathy Womble at cwomble@newszap.com.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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