Gainesville city manager recalls role integrating Palatka school  

City Manager Cynthia Curry speaks during a community meeting in 2023.
Gainesville City Manager Cynthia Curry speaks during a community meeting in 2023.
File photo by Seth Johnson

On a Putnam County school bus headed to Browning-Pearce Elementary School in Palatka, students stood despite two open seats.  

“If I sat in one place and my brother sat in a different place, which is generally how we did it, they did not want to sit with either one of us, and they stood all the way to school versus sitting next to us,” recalled Gainesville City Manager Cynthia Curry.  

Curry, then 10 years old, and her younger brother were the only Black students on the bus as school integration began in 1965. Even though 11 years had passed since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision, Curry said schools remained separate and unequal.  

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Her father served as principal of a Black elementary school, and Curry said her mother would tell how upset he would be at the state of facilities and school supplies—hand-me downs from the white schools in the area.  

Curry’s father died in 1961, and after the Civil Rights Act passed a few years later, communities began to consider how to implement it. 

“At that point in time, I guess folk all around the state, all around the country, had started to anticipate how to move forward with the integration,” she said in an interview. “My family along with other families, probably three or four other families in Putnam County, they pulled together and decided that they were going to be the pilot, or testers, of the system.” 

Friday marks 70 years since Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark decision that overturned school segregation and the “separate but equal” precedent established in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.  

“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” justices wrote in the unanimous Brown decision. “Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” 

Curry said the law might have changed in Washington, D.C., but the on-the-ground realities stayed the same for years. 

“There were still things that had to be done in order for folk to recognize that, yes, the law has passed, but things haven’t changed that much yet,” Curry said, referring to both Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act.  

She said discrimination still abounded in the private sector and within government. Curry said even today the work continues as she leads Gainesville government under the city commission.  

Curry said she feels privileged to be in Gainesville, just down the road from where she and her seven siblings grew up. While qualifications and experience earned her the position, Curry points back to integrating Browning-Pearce Elementary as a milestone in her whole social development.  

When Curry, who entered the fifth grade at Browning-Pearce, didn’t sit in her assigned seat, she said it created friction with the bus driver and principal. Her mother stepped in. She told the school that her kids had the right to sit where they wanted on the bus—just like all the other students.  

It wouldn’t be the last time Curry’s mother, then a widow, would fill the gap and support her children. Incidents continued as Curry and other Black students broke barriers, like Curry’s selection as class president and student government president. 

“My mother, she’s the backbone of who I am really,” Curry said. 

Curry remembers her first year at the new school with Francis Carlisle as her teacher. Carlisle was a tall, heavyset white woman with a stern demeanor, Curry recalls.  

“I went home and told my mom, ‘I don’t think I can do this because she’s mean,’” Curry said. “I had no basis to say she was mean other than the way she looked. But I found her to be very different and to treat me with much respect and to give me the opportunity to shine in that classroom.”   

Carlisle would make a point to highlight Curry when she aced an assignment or test, showing the class that her performance was on par. Curry said Carlisle’s actions made it easier for her at the school.  

Curry said academic excellence and resolve to do right helped her and her brother make their way through the first year of voluntary integration.  

Forced integration came a year or two later with bused students mixing school populations. Curry said it was harder after forced integration. More Black students meant more interactions and possibilities of disputes and fights.  

“By the time I graduated, which was 1973, things were still a little tense,” Curry said. “But we had learned to get along, Blacks and whites, for the most part.” 

Even in her senior year, incidents occurred. Curry was the first Black contestant in the Miss Palatka contest, earning her a burned cross at the end of the driveway. She said she guessed it was from people unhappy with her contest entrance.  

Curry also went before the school board to advocate for Black football players who received a harsher punishment than their teammates after a fight.  

As city manager, Curry continues to advocate for issues of equity and access. She said issues persist with individuals being able to participate in opportunities, if desired. She points to poverty as a main block to access. 

“I think the issue of equity, obviously, is still an issue here in this country, period. Not only in Palatka and in Alachua County but across the country,” Curry said.  

Many of the issues are the same ones her father dealt with as an elementary principal. She points to friends of his that paved the way in Alachua County, like T. B. McPherson and Altamese Cook. Curry said her family environment and childhood experiences formed her and made her ready to take on the challenges of the city of Gainesville.  

Curry referenced a line in “Life Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson: Let us march on till victory is won.  

“And I don’t know when victory will be won, but we have to continue to lean in and march on to make progress in our communities,” Curry said. 

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Faith Reidenbach

I really enjoyed this first-person account that makes history come alive. Ms. Curry, thanks for all you put up with as you help lead Gainesville.

Janice Garry

The two articles on integration are stories of courage, strength and thoughtful action. I am indebted to these women and their service both past and present. Ms. Curry manages our city with intelligence and calm demeanor. I’m so proud that she represents us and steers us forward.


And now she makes $210,000 a year manage a corrupt and broken city.