SANFORD, Fla. – Ingrid Burton Nathan was the first Black student to integrate Seminole County Schools.
In 1964, she entered Sanford Junior High School, and she was among the first Black students to attend Seminole High School. She says making her parents proud was her main motivation through some challenging years.
“What I reflect on today, I reflect on the fact I did it without question,” Nathan said.
Growing up during segregation, Nathan remembers being excited to make history as the first Black student to integrate Seminole County Schools.
“My attitude back then was wonderment,” Nathan said.
At age 14, she says she knew about the Civil Rights movement, but really had no idea what she was in for as she prepared to attend Sanford Junior High.
“I was never afraid. I never was aware of any danger. I saw the news, but I didn’t equate it with what I was doing.” Nathan said.
Her first day, her father dropped her off and a police officer escorted her to the front door as everyone inside the all-white school watched from the windows.
“But I walked up the sidewalk, and I was greeted very politely. And the Student Council greeted me and they walked me to all my classes. They sat and ate lunch with me the first day. After that, I was on my own.”
She said her days at school were lonely, and along the way, she’d bear the brunt of some harsh lessons about the nature of hatred.
“When I would walk down the hall, it would part like the Red Sea. Nobody wanted to touch me.”
The hostility toward her would escalate over the years, until her graduation in 1968.
“Yes, this boy that was bothering me all the time, (and he) threw a spit ball at me, on me, getting on the bus. And I went for him and my friends wouldn’t let me get to him,” she said.
Her family and friends, who had no idea what she was going through, kept her grounded.
“I was walking to my music lesson or piano lesson, but this car drove by and a drink flew out the window on me. And I noticed the color of the car and didn’t know the tag I saw. I saw white guys in it and I reported it,” Nathan said. “I didn’t tell my parents, ‘See all the things that happened to me in school.’ I never told my parents how the kids were treating me. I just never did because I left it there.”
Later, she would learn members of the basketball team were behind the bullying when school leaders pulled her aside to give her a choice on how they could be punished.
“‘Miss Burton, they have districts next next week or next month, if you say so, they don’t go.’ They were asking me to punish the basketball team,” Nathan said. “And of course, you know, I didn’t say no. I said, ‘Just leave me alone. I’m peaceful. I don’t bother anyone. Just let me be, don’t bother me.’ And I walked out of there. And I still never told my parents about that, to this day. And they weren’t punished. No one was punished for what they did to me.”
There were bright spots, too, in her trailblazing story of integration in Seminole County Schools. She joined the National Honor Society and she took comfort in the classmates, teachers and school workers who welcomed her.
“I had a few friends that would talk to me in some classes. One teacher, Miss Westgate told me, ‘Anytime you don’t feel safe, you come to my class.’ So her classroom was a safe place for me,” Nathan said. “I remember sitting in Mr. Colbert’s class. Oh, yes, he was a great teacher there. He was like my white godfather. He was in my life forever, and after I graduated from school, he hired me to work at the school board office. He gave me my first job in Seminole County, helping me get into the system.”
These days, she said she has a sense of peace about the experience.
“I have peace about everything I went through because you have to live life without an apology. If you’re waiting for an apology, it’s just like you’re drinking poison, wanting somebody else to die. That makes no sense at all,” Nathan said. “Forgiveness is No. 1. I can remember and I can relate, but I have to forgive.”
After graduation from Florida Southern College, she returned to Seminole County to teach Spanish at Lake Brantley and Lake Mary High schools for more than 35 years. She says her greatest accomplishment, the thing she is most proud of, is sponsoring the gospel choir at Lake Mary High School.
Today, she remains hopeful about the current climate of education reform as well as evolving issues of equity for all students.
“I think the atmosphere now is more accepting of the fact that there needs to be equity and there needs to be, for all you know, concern shown for everyone in education,” she said.