By Willie B. Hall – Many have never heard of the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association (FIAA), the organization that regulated athletic programs of black high schools in Florida before integration. The FIAA was created in the same spirit as the Florida Association of Band Directors (FABD). This was the unified group, which supported black high school band programs in the state.
Public school segregation began with the passage of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century. Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation. The legality of Jim Crow laws were sustained by the Supreme Court’s decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which ruled that separate facilities for blacks and whites were allowed if both facilities were of equal quality. Schools and organizations like the FIAA & FABD that supported the schools became separate but in no way equal.
In the late 1920’s, many black high school athletic programs struggled. No schools across the state played by the same rules. No age limits existed for the student athletes. In some instances, students who were 19 or 20 years old were playing against kids who were 14 or 15. Black athletic programs in Florida had no districts or no regions. State championships did not consist of playoffs. The schools that could afford to pay dues paid them and the ones that could not, did not. Many teams could not afford proper uniforms. Some schools did not have enough talent to form any teams at all. The FIAA was then established in 1932 to provide athletic leadership and organization.
Wilt C. Alexander Jr. was hired as FIAA’s Executive Secretary. Before being hired as the FIAA’s only full-time employee, Alexander had served as a teacher and principal in Marion County Florida. A natural leader and visionary, he also sued the Marion County School Board for racial discrimination, demanding that black teachers be paid as much as white teachers. Principals familiar with his professional capabilities voted him as the first and only, Executive Secretary of the FIAA.
Alexander mandated that the first ever eligibility list be sent by principals. He ruled that athletes must be required to pass all subjects to be eligible to join and participate on an athletic team. Schools that did not pay dues had their FIAA memberships revoked. Schools that played athletes out of the associations permitted age range were fined and games were forfeited. The FIAA was doing so well that a headquarters was built in Orlando, Florida in 1955. Under Alexander, the FIAA became professional and credible.
In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling ended segregation in schools. As time went on several school districts slowly integrated their schools, this included the athletic programs. Integration eventually ended the FIAA. At the end of the 1967-1968 school year, the FIAA merged with the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA).
The FIAA building was later deeded to the Afro-American Life Insurance Company (AALIC). On January 11, 1969, the AALIC bought the FIAA land, building and all the inside furnishings and property for $30, 000 (about $215,000 in 2021). Due to the organizations un-organized beginnings, merging with the FHSAA, many black schools closing, and selling off property and assets shortly after, few records from the FIAA still exist.
In the late 1970’s Wilt C. Alexander, Leedell W. Neyland and Matthew H. Estaras spent three years researching old yearbooks, newspaper articles & bulletins to write a history of the FIAA. In 1982, “The History of the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association 1932-1968” was published. The book was an incomplete record of the FIAA and its sports records; however, to date, this book remains the only record. Most of the sports records they were able to document were Basketball, in addition to Track and Field. The most popular sport, Football, had a history of classifications but no scoring records.
For many years, the FHSAA did not acknowledge any of the pre-integration state championships of the FIAA, not even the records that were documented in the 1982 book. This means that thousands of athletes and nearly 150 schools were giving no formal recognition for their athletic accomplishments. Other southern states athletic associations have come across the same problem and do not include pre-integration records for black schools.
Then, in 2008, State Senator Tony Hill chartered a bus that would take the 1958 Matthew Gilbert High School (Gilbert) football team to Tallahassee to be honored by the State Legislature. In 1958, Gilbert was a member of the FIAA and had an undefeated season that ended in a 14-7 state championship win over Dillard High School (Fort Lauderdale). Earl Kitchings, their head coach was present to participate in the honor. Shortly before that honor, the FHSAA finally acknowledged the team by listing them on their All-Time Teams list. The list spanned every decade starting in the early 1900s through 2007.
William Marion Raines Senior High School (Raines) opened in 1965 and was a member of the FIAA until it merged with the FHSAA. In 1997, Raines was labeled the first public high school in Duval County to earn a football state championship. Raines won 32-27 over Glades Central. It would take 20 years for another Duval County Public School to win a state football championship and it was Raines, again, who came out with the victory. Members of the 1967 Raines varsity football team would have a lot to say about the 1997 claims. Raines was only two years old in the fall of 1967 when they defeated Howard High School 9-0 to clinch the FIAA Big Nine Conference Championship. The icing on the cake was Coach Earl S. Kitchings being voted “Coach of the Year” by the FIAA Big Nine Conference.
As a graduate of Raines and someone who has studied the history of the school, I was shocked to learn that it was little documentation about the accomplishment. The only record of the game I could find was in a yearbook. No FIAA records exist for that game and no football score records were included in the 1982 FIAA book. Raines has earned four football state championships (1967, 1997, 2017 & 2018). In 1973, they were the 4-A State Runner-Up and again in 2015. The first FHSAA state championship for Raines occurred in 1976 with Boys Track & Field.
To the FHSAA’s credit, they have begun to add the records of the FIAA that can be accurately documented, to the FHSAA state championship records list. To date, the FHSAA has added FIAA championship records for Boys Basketball, Girls Basketball and Boys Track & Field. This is a start.
As a historian, the gaps in the records and in the documentation of black people’s accomplishments, pains me. Much work still needs to be done to compile FIAA records. This would take searching through yearbooks, newspaper clippings, letters, photo albums and recording oral interviews, which would be a major task. Those that are lovers of history and nurturers of high school athletics should make this a priority. Giving those schools, players and coaches recognition is important to black history and to the preservation of the history and culture of our people in Florida. This is American history!
Be the first to comment