February 10: Remembering Dr. Garrett T. Wiggins and Booker T. Washington Junior College

The nation’s first Black junior college, Booker T. Washington Junior College, opened in Pensacola, Florida in 1949 on the campus of all-black Booker T. Washington high school. The two institutions shared a name, a building and an administrator: Dr. Garrett T. Wiggins.

Dr. Garrett T. Wiggins was, at the time, the only educator in all of northwest Florida with an earned doctorate, and he served as founding (and only) president and dean of the college and principal of the high school, and was known as “the smartest man in the county.”

Before landing at Booker T. Washington, Wiggins served on the faculty at Florida A&M University. He’s remembered as “an educational catalyst, dedicated to the concept that black children must realize the importance of receiving an education.”

Booker T. Washington Junior College provided many Black students with a foundation to transfer into Bethune-Cookman College, Edward Waters College and Florida A&M University with a solid foundation in teaching, medicine, law and theology.

In 1965, Booker T. Washington “merged” with then Pensacola Junior College, and Wiggins went on to serve as Pensacola Junior College’s Director of Research until his retirement. However, many argue the school was effectively closed, as Pensacola Junior College did not make a great effort to include the Booker T. Washington’s students or faculty into the fabric of the institution.

Florida is often credited for being more progressive than other Southern states when it came to integration thanks to a governor in LeRoy Collins who “allowed — and then embraced” the idea. However, in reality, Florida’s reception to the idea was lukewarm at best. In the mid-50s — during the heat of the fight for school integration following the Brown v. Board decision in 1954 — Florida opened 11 Black junior colleges, all on the campuses of Black high schools. By 1967, they had all merged into white institutions, and little information remains marking their existence.

Former FAMU President Walter Lee Smith has been working to restore the public’s memory around the existence of these institutions. He wants to see the 28 community colleges that exist in the state today renamed to reflect their erased heritages.

“These black colleges were absorbed, not merged, into white colleges,” Smith said. “Not one of the 12 black presidents even became a vice president after the institutions merged, and in most instances the black faculty were dismissed or paid considerably less than white faculty.”

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com