9/16/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
America’s children, complete with their pimples, genius and electronic gadgets, are back in school.
America’s principals – those unsung heroes – are the people most directly responsible for making the school experience a success or failure. Principals are, after all, the top administrators on their campuses. As such, we demand that they perform daily miracles.
I was reminded of the invaluable role principals play when one of my 12th grade classmates telephoned a few days ago to tell me that our first class reunion in many years is being planned. Our talk got around to Harry Burney, our principal at all-black Middleton High School in Crescent City during the Jim Crow era.
How well I remember Mr. Burney. Our parents and other adults called him “Professor Burney” or “Prof” for short. He stood nearly 6 feet, had a slim physique, light brown skin and a deep, raspy voice that forced you to pay attention. His ready smile could mean that a compliment was coming or that a “chewing out,” as we called his scolding, was about to leave you dreading to go home to your parents for a second chewing out.
He always telephoned our parents: Mr. Burney and our parents conspired against us.
We kids held him in awe – not fear-induced awe, but respect-induced awe. We thought he was the smartest, wisest, kindest man ever.
When our teachers sent us “to the principal’s office,” which was rare in those days, we always left the office with an assignment. Mr. Burney knew which subjects we were weak in. I was weak in math, so he always gave me enough math problems to solve that would keep me busy for several hours that night. Pete White hated English, so he always got a “long” short story to read.
Along with our parents, Mr. Burney encouraged all of us to attend college. We had 18 students in my senior class. All but two of us attended college.
The year after I graduated in 1963, the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed, and all-black Middleton High was closed. So was all-white Crescent City High. A new, integrated school was built. Mr. Burney, like hundreds of other black principals in Florida, lost his job. I went off to a historically black college in Texas, and Mr. Burney became a senior assistant to the president at historically black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.
I did not learn until many years later, after I had become a college English professor in Chicago, that Mr. Burney’s life often had been “hell,” as he described it, as a black principal in Jim Crow’s separate-but-equal public school system.
Over dinner one evening, while he was in the Windy City for a meeting, he told me that besides dealing with the internal daily problems that naturally occurred, he struggled with the institutionalized racism that kept his tiny, rural campus strapped for money to purchase necessities such as science equipment and new textbooks.
Disrespect for him, his teachers and his students because they were black was part of the job, he said. He asked me to imagine the great things he could have accomplished if he had been treated like his white counterparts. He said he controlled his anger by throwing himself into his work, his mission to do the best he could with what he had.
In the face of virulent racism, black principals had to “make do,” he said. He had a wooden panel on his desk that read: “Make Do.”
My classmate, who called the other night, and I agreed that we had inherited Mr. Burney’s “make do” spirit, meaning that although we comprehend, and always will comprehend, that we are victims of racism, we refuse – and always will refuse – to live as victims. Mr. Burney used to say that we, as blacks, should live the best life we can “no matter what.”
Not only did Mr. Burney set the academic tone of our school, he hired teachers who shared his “make do” spirit and he made our parents his allies. As a formidable team, they drove us, the students, to excel without excuses. And I still remember the posters of great blacks, such as Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad, and James Weldon Johnson, author of the Lift Every Voice and Sing, known as the Black National Anthem.
My classmate, a bank executive in Broward County, and I agreed that we are successful in large measure because of Mr. Harry Burney’s tough love and wisdom.
Hanging up, she said, as she always says: “Later. Keep on making do.”