Middleton-Blake: Nostalgia and Challenge

It’s trite but true. That Middleton-Blake grid clash a fortnight ago was much more than a football game. And it was much more than the bragging rights that should accompany a 46-0 pasting, even if it’s (9-11 grade) Middleton putting it on Blake’s junior varsity.

It was even more than the sort of feel-good story we can all use a good dose of during especially troubling times.

That’s because Middleton-Blake was about reunion and revival — of a rivalry. And celebration — of what was best of a time that wasn’t better in so many ways.

Back when segregation-era black schools, such as Middleton and Blake High Schools, were community linch pins. And when their football teams met in the annual “Soul Bowl,” it was a community happening. It all ended with the arrival of court-ordered desegregation. Both historically black high schools were closed in 1971 and converted into junior highs.

Now they’re back. Sort of.

A new Blake opened in 1997 near the old Blake in West Tampa. This year a new Middleton opened near the old Middleton in East Tampa. In barely more than a month the football rivalry that had been dormant for 31 years was renewed. And an overflow crowd of some 6,000 fans, many of them 50-somethings reliving another time, turned out for history and nostalgia.

“We want to bring the guys back together,” said Henry Washington, Middleton ’68 and a former Tigers’ quarterback. “We want to make this an annual tradition like it used to be.”

It was an auspicious kick-start, but the challenges belie the emotions of the moment. Especially for Middleton.

This is now; that was then. Middleton is no longer a de jure black school forced to rally proudly within a Jim Crow universe. The overwhelming majority of teachers and administrators don’t live in the area. Middleton is a choice-plan, post court-ordered desegregation-era product.

With nearly 1,400 students, it is approximately 70 per cent black this start-up year. The School District of Hillsborough County is aiming for 39 per cent black enrollment next year when there’s a senior class and the 2,100-student school is fully magnetized for math, science, technology and engineering. (Blake, an arts magnet with some 1,700 students, is about 45% per cent black.)

Minorities as majorities or pluralities creates a unique 2002 dynamic in the celebration of a de facto family reunion. Most of the fans at the Middleton-Blake game were black, as were the players. But there are more than 200 white kids at Middleton. And a lot more on the way next year. Is there a meaningful part in this nostalgic, back-to-the-future black experience for them?

“It’s coming around slowly,” acknowledged Washington, who’s now the hands-on principal of Middleton. “But, yes, that’s a tough one for the white kids. We tell them how much we love them. I never walk past a student — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — without saying something. I’m all over this campus. We want to make sure this isn’t one-sided. I mean, how many principals get on the intercom each day to say ‘I love you’? This one does. And I mean it. And I’m going to preach that until it’s in their souls.

“Even though there is a black tradition,” stressed the 53-year-old Washington,” this is a new age. No one is left out. We want all students to feel wanted. Teachers were selected carefully with that in mind. Diversity is very prominent on this campus.”

Race, moreover, is not Washington’s only inclusion issue. Next generations, black and white, don’t always read minutes of previous meetings. An adult “reunion” may be merely another variation on a school-choice integration theme. Additionally, all students went somewhere else last year, and for many their allegiances didn’t die with the rebirth of Middleton.

“We preach family here,” underscored Washington, who previously was principal at Chamberlain High School. “You might have been a Plant Panther or a Robinson Knight. Well, now, you’re a Middleton Tiger. No matter where you came from, this is your school. This is our school. We’re all Tigers.”

He may have a Tiger by the tail in the short run, but Washington is holding out for the best of both worlds long term.

“Look, times have changed,” he pointed out. “There’s not the parental backing of the old days. But we’re not wringing our hands over that. In years to come, these young people will be creating their own traditions.

“I hope I can build this family relationship over the years,” added Washington. “This school is for everyone. But there’s a special piece of history that will always be there. The community won’t allow otherwise.”

Nor should it. Race and roots aside, pride in a school — and its role as a community catalyst and hub — can be a colorblind model for all.

Frankly, the easiest part of Washington’s job is already behind him. That was the unfettered fun he and fellow alums had at the historic football game. No one is expecting a 46-0 blowout of Blake’s varsity next year.

More importantly, no one is expecting Washington to turn his increasingly melting potluck of a student body into an instant “We Are Family” love-fest. Some days they may look like the Muddleton Social Engineers.

But every day that begins with kids — black and white, neighborhood and magnet, erstwhile Panthers and Knights — being reminded that someone important in their lives loves them has to matter.

Go, Tigers.

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