2018 book examines desegregation in Alachua County

Michael Gengler, a 1962 Gainesville High graduate, examines desegregation in Alachua County.
Michael Gengler, a 1962 Gainesville High graduate, examines desegregation in Alachua County.
UF/Amazon

Michael Gengler grew up in Gainesville and graduated from Gainesville High School in 1962, when the schools were still fully segregated. He said he and many of his classmates were baffled that their school was not racially integrated.  

“When I was in high school, we all thought it was a constitutional and racial affront to exclude African Americans from the white school,” Gengler said in a phone interview. “I had no understanding of the role of Lincoln High School in the Black community… and that there would be a division in that community over desegregation.” 

As editor of the Hurricane Herald, GHS’s school newspaper, Gengler and his peers took a survey of their classmates, finding that 32% said they felt ready for desegregation, while 68% said “no.” 

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Gengler says he learned a lot while researching for his 2018 book, “We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of Desegregation.” It’s a 570-page history of desegregation in Alachua County.  

Gengler moved away for college immediately after his high school graduation. He did not return to Gainesville until 2019, but always planned to come back, after William Talbot, ACPS superintendent during desegregation and GHS principal during Gengler’s time there, visited Harvard. 

Gengler said Talbot told him the county’s trouble was that it spends all its money educating smart students, only for them to leave and never return. 

Michael Gengler
Courtesy of UF Michael Gengler

“I never formed strong community connections in Boston or Chicago,” Gengler said. “That was just a place where I went to work. It was always my intent to come back here, and my community service, philanthropy, whatever you want to call it, was always planned to be in Gainesville.” 

When researching for “We Can Do It,” Gengler said he adhered to academic research standards so the book could hold up under scrutiny and do justice to the story of his hometown. 

Gengler said the most surprising thing he learned when researching for the book was how little guidance the Supreme Court gave school systems when it decided Brown v. Board of Education

“It wasn’t until courts finally compelled themselves to abolish the side-by-side white and Black schools that there was really desegregation,” Gengler said. 

After that decision, Gengler said the South became the most desegregated portion of the country because it had closed its Black schools. 

Michael Gengler's 2018 book focused on a history of desegregation in Alachua County.
Amazon Michael Gengler’s 2018 book focused on a history of desegregation in Alachua County.

He said the effort to integrate would never have been possible without the support and hard work of community members, both Black and white. He noted that many in the Black community were against integration, and there were demonstrations in the streets when Lincoln closed its doors. 

Gengler especially noted the time and effort that teachers put in to make the integration successful, some of whom enrolled in a “problem readers” course at Santa Fe College to learn how to help some Black students whose education had left them years behind. The course was not intended to teach teachers, instead the educators went through it as if they were the problem readers themselves. 

“The book is full of examples like this, of… teachers, and again, this comes back to how hard people worked to try to deal with desegregation,” Gengler said. 

The journey to integration in Alachua County Public Schools was not easy, or short, but both Gengler and LaVon Wright Bracy—the first Black graduate at GHS—noted that Black and white students now walk side by side in the halls of the district’s 36 schools, even though the role of public schools in the community is not the same as it used to be. 

“Education right now is quite different than it was when I was in school,” Bracy said. “And it’s incumbent upon parents not to take a back seat, but to really get involved so that our kids will get a global education, and they will be able to compete around the world.” 

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