Gibbs Junior College Made an Impact in the Community and Around the World

In the 1950s, African-Americans were graduating in record numbers from area all-black high schools with little or no access to higher education. Although the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision integrating public schools had been in effect for three years, many public colleges and universities, including St. Petersburg Junior College , had not integrated.

The nearest public African-American institution was Florida A&M University in Tallahassee , and the nearest private black college was Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach . Many Tampa Bay area students didn't have the means to go far away for their studies.

To accommodate their needs, a college was created in St. Petersburg to serve students in Pinellas, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco , Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. It was named Gibbs Junior College.

Gibbs Junior College was one of a dozen colleges established by the state in the days before desegregation. During its 10-year existence, Gibbs Junior College , located on the campus of Gibbs High School , met the needs of thousands of young men and women around Tampa Bay.

Established in 1957 by the Pinellas County Board of Public Instruction, Gibbs opened on Sept. 3. The college initially operated at Gibbs High School during the afternoon and evening, but in 1958 it moved into its own adjacent facility.

The college's administrators included founding president John W. Rembert, Cecil Keene, who later would be named to the Florida Board of Regents (and was a member of SPC's Board of Trustees until shortly before his death in July 2008), and Dr. Johnnie Ruth Clarke, the first black woman awarded a Ph.D. from a state university in Florida.

There were 58 faculty members, holding 119 degrees from 51 different higher education institutions.  Three of the faculty, including President Rembert, had doctorate degrees.

Students from 46 Florida counties, nine states, the Virgin Islands , the Bahamas and Africa enrolled at the college. In addition, area school boards provided free bus service to students from Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The college began with 245 students. By the college's last year as an autonomous institution, it had an enrollment of 901.

Gibbs Junior College graduates include Walter Smith, former president of Florida A&M University , and Calvin Harris, a member of the faculty and the administration of SPJC for 26 years. In 1997, Harris became the first African-American member of the Pinellas County Commission, later serving as chairman.

Gibbs also was the first of the African-American junior colleges to become fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Gibbs Junior College was renowned for its athletic, drama and music programs. The college also offered programs for the community such as the Children's Language Program, designed to introduce area kids to foreign language and the Gibbs Junior College Religious Institute, featuring ministers and lay people from around the Tampa Bay area. In addition, the college sometimes featured guest speakers in its classes to enhance student's learning experience.  

During the middle of the school year 1965-66, GJC was placed under the supervision of St. Petersburg Junior College becoming the Skyway Campus and it was headed by Johnnie Ruth Clarke.

On March 16, 1967, SPJC's Advisory Committee recommended to the Pinellas Board of Public Instruction that the Skyway Campus be closed.

In 1992, under the leadership of the Rev. Mac Williams, chairman of the SPJC District Board of Trustees and a Gibbs graduate, the St. Petersburg Junior College - St. Petersburg Campus became the St. Petersburg Junior College - Gibbs Campus.

As Dr. Walter L. Smith said in his book, The Magnificent Twelve, Truly, Gibbs Junior College touched millions - locally, nationally and internationally  through its programs and its graduates. 

The alumni and friends of Gibbs Junior College salute the founders, faculty, staff, and students who have made a difference because Gibbs Junior College was there when African-Americans needed access to higher education.


Gibbs Junior College Namesake of Outstanding Floridian

Education was important to Jonathan C. Gibbs. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Princeton Theological Seminary, Gibbs opened a private school for freed slaves in North Carolina after the Civil War. He moved to Florida in 1867, and in 1868 was elected to the state's Constitutional Convention. Later he was appointed Florida Secretary of State and then Superintendent of Public Instruction. He was lauded for his efforts to adopt uniform textbooks for students in Florida schools.

It seemed only appropriate that when a college for African-American students opened on Florida's West Coast in the 1950s, it was named for a man who was not only a great educator, but also the first African-American member of the Florida Cabinet.

Born to free parents in Philadelphia, Gibbs was the son of a Methodist minister. He worked as a carpenter's apprentice before entering Dartmouth at age 21. After graduating from Princeton, he became pastor of a Philadelphia church.

In The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida, Dr. Joe Martin Richardson said Gibbs was very interested in public education and meticulous in his work; he demanded full and accurate reports from county superintendents and supervised them closely.

Upon his sudden death in 1874, newspapers around the state heralded Gibbs contribution to the state. According to the Tri-Weekly Florida Union in Jacksonville. . .in all the elements that go to make up what is termed a good citizen and a capable and honest public servant, he leaves few superiors.

And, according to Richardson  the minister-educator-politician was a man of integrity and dedication, and was without question one of the most outstanding men of Florida .


John W. Rembert, President, Gibbs Junior College

The founding president was Gibbs High School Principal John W. Rembert, a graduate of Florida A&M University and Columbia University . Rembert had been an avid supporter of a two-year college for the African-American community. He had campaigned to make such an institution a reality.

Many people misunderstood my initial efforts to get a community college opened for black citizens, said Rembert in the book The Magnificent Twelve: Florida's Black Junior Colleges. They felt I was anti-integration. I wasn't.

However, developing a mechanism for getting members of the black community, young and old, educated was the priority. I knew it would be years before the historically white institutions would open their doors to black people. Meantime, we would continue to be sedentary in our level of educational attainment.  


Setting the Standard

Upon opening, Rembert and his staff set goals for the college, making sure the institution would:

  • Provide standard freshman and sophomore courses, comparable to those of four-year colleges, for students who planned to transfer.

  • Provide vocational/technical courses for students seeking immediate entry into employment.

  • Offer a variety of programs that met the individual and collective needs of the general public. 

  • Provide in-service courses for teachers to help them meet state requirements in updating their credits or extending their teaching certificates.

( St. Petersburg College )  



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