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Stebbins Led Fight For Black Teachers

To mark Black History Month, our February columns will profile local black personalities who’ve made historical contributions in Palm Beach County.

Charles Stebbins Jr. was the Rosa Parks of Palm Beach County’s black teachers. He never benefited from the battle for which he agreed to be the poster boy; the day it ended in victory, he was waiting tables in New York.
But a federal judge’s decision that the county’s black teachers must be paid the same as whites set a stunning precedent in 1941. And it was a step toward the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed school segregation.

White teachers with five years of experience had received a $25 raise in 1941 to $140 a month – about $1,400 a month in 1990s dollars. Furious black counterparts, who got no raise, founded the Palm Beach County Teachers Association, and about 85 percent of the county’s 115 black teachers joined.

The next step was a federal lawsuit. The group needed a name to put atop it. One person stepped forward: veteran educator Charles H. Stebbins Jr.

The Arcadia native taught social studies at West Palm Beach’s black Industrial High School until he was terminated. A school board official offered him $500 and his job back if he’d drop the case. He declined. He was then blackballed throughout the state as a troublemaker. Also, the black union reneged on a promise to pay him a year’s salary if he was fired.

Stebbins moved to New York, then served in the Navy, where he filed two discrimination suits. He worked 32 years for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in Washington, where he sued again. The suits, for promotions, failed. His fights eventually opened doors for black people behind him. He never returned to education, and died in 1991.

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Posted in Black Palm Beach Blog and Eliot Kleinberg February 25, 2004 at 2:55 pm.

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