‘My purpose:’ Seminole schools honor 1st African American student to integrate schools

District naming Building 2 at Sanford Middle School for Ingrid Burton Nathan

SANFORD, Fla. – SANFORD, Fla. - Decades after making history, a Seminole County woman is being honored for her sacrifice as the first African American student to integrate Seminole County Public Schools.

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No hesitation

Ingrid Burton Nathan was born in New York. She said her birth mother put her up for adoption. Ulysses and Edna Burton adopted her as a newborn and brought her to Seminole County. They owned and operated Burton’s Funeral Home.

“I was transplanted here and that was obviously my purpose,” Nathan said.

Nathan’s adopted mother, Edna Burton, passed away before she turned six. Years later her father remarried her stepmother, Cleo.

Nathan recalls her godfather was a member of the county’s biracial committee, which was tapped with selecting the first African American student to integrate schools. The group chose Nathan.

“When he asked me did I want to, I said yes without hesitation. I didn’t think past that moment,” Nathan said.

Ingrid Burton Nathan as a student. She was the first African American to integrate Seminole County Public Schools. (Ingrid Burton Nathan)

‘Don’t go to that school’

Nathan was told she was selected to be the first student to integrate schools because of her fair skin.

“And they felt like I would not have as hard a time as a darker skinned child. They were wrong,” she said.

She attended Sanford Middle School in 1964. The ninth grader was 14 years old. She remembers the night before her first day she got a call from a white parent.

“She didn’t know me. She just said tell your parents you don’t want to go. Don’t go to that school tomorrow,” Nathan said.

Nathan said she didn’t let that stop her. She recalls her father drove her to school.

“I was escorted by police into the building,” Nathan said.

She said on the first day of school everyone was nice to her. She said students walked her to class and sat with her at lunch.

“After that I was on my own,” Nathan said.

Nathan described her time at Sanford Middle School as lonely. Then things changed when she went to Seminole High School the next year.

Nathan said she was bullied, she wasn’t allowed to join clubs and students accused her of cheating.

“When I walked through the halls, the hall parted like the red sea. Nobody wanted to touch me,” she said.

Ingrid Burton Nathan as a student. She was the first African American to integrate Seminole County Public Schools. (Ingrid Burton Nathan)

Lasting impact

Through it all, Nathan persevered. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. She was also selected to be a member of the National Honor Society.

She credits a guidance counselor for helping her get accepted to Florida Southern College, where she studied Spanish.

“I thought since I didn’t have total straight A’s and didn’t make the highest SAT that I could not get into college, but she showed me that I could,” Nathan said.

Nathan married her childhood sweetheart. After living in Virginia for a few years, her family moved back to Seminole County.

She became a teacher, spending nearly 40 years teaching Spanish at Lake Brantley and Lake Mary high schools.

The 72-year-old said at the time she didn’t realize her decision to be the first to integrate schools would have a lasting impact.

“The greatness of it, the bigness of it, no it never hit me. I never did,” she said.

Honoring her legacy

The Seminole County School District is now making sure Nathan’s story is never forgotten.

On Tuesday, the school board unanimously approved naming building 2 at Sanford Middle School in her honor. District officials said they hope to have the sign up by February.

“I know the children will look on that building with my name on it, those who know me will be proud. Those who don’t will know about my legacy, my character, what I’ve done, and my accomplishments,” Nathan said.

It’s a sign of how she changed history and a symbol of hope for future students to never give up.

“Such negative beginnings and I made it, so anybody can make it,” she said.