BRADENTON – Thomas W. “Bill” Clyburn, an educator who was one of the first Black students to attend Sarasota High School in 1963, died Saturday night at age 74, succumbing to a recurrence of lung cancer.
Clyburn spent his junior and senior years – 1963-64 and 1964-65 – at Sarasota High, before the district was fully integrated in the late 1960s.
Clyburn earned a doctorate in social psychology at Walden University and spent his career in higher education and consulting, including serving as dean of human services at Capella University – a chosen path of education, noted his youngest child, Christina Clyburn.
At 16, Sarasota County school officials chose Sykes and fellow Booker High School classmate Wilhelmina Armstrong to be the first Black students to attend the previously all-white Sarasota High School.
Clyburn and Armstrong never had the same classes so each was essentially alone with their experiences.
“His story showed his strength of character and just his power to go through a very difficult situation and endure hardness like a good soldier,” said Vickie Oldham, CEO and president of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition. “To have the courage to go on through that experience, being the only one – he didn’t see the other, female, student they brought there.”
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Oldham said Clyburn’s story gives her strength as she, too, has often had to move alone in some circles in Sarasota.
“His story says even if it’s hard, even if you feel alone, you have to go ahead and do what you have to do anyway,” she added.
‘I realized I was a guinea pig’
Clyburn attended Sarasota High in the morning and finished at Booker High in the afternoon.
A gifted musician – he played clarinet and oboe – and baseball player, Clyburn was also mature beyond his years.
The eldest of six children, Clyburn had to take on a more mature role when he was 12, after his father died.
“I didn’t have a voice. They already made up their mind,” Clyburn told the Herald-Tribune in a January 2014 interview of the Sarasota High experience. “Once you look back over it over the years, I realized I was a guinea pig.
“It’s a test case to see if I was going to fit in.”
His daughter, Christina Clyburn, figures the educators in that she was saw something more in her father.
“Someone must have seen the greatness and potential in him, before all of us,” she said.
Former Sarasota City Commissioner Willie Charles Shaw summed up his classmate in Booker High School’s class of 1965 in one word: “Stellar.”
“That needs to be used,” Shaw said. “We as a class were greatly saddened, but we have lost a stellar character.”
Shaw elaborated that to him, stellar means, “Outstanding, wonderful, admirable, a model.
“It has all of those meanings to me,” he added. “I want it to be apart of his legacy.
“I want the young people to realize that there is such a characterization.”
One of those young people, Melanie Lavender, had a different word to characterize Clyburn – as well as Shaw and others who grew up through adolescence near the end of the segregation era – “Superhero.”
“A lot of these people who I had been around and seen and watched growing up, these were real live superheroes to me, or celebrities,” said Lavender, who hosts Soul of Tha Matter with Mel on an online radio station, 1075thevibe.com .
Lavender first met Clyburn through Oldham, who later let Lavender read transcripts of oral histories for the ongoing Newtown Alive! Project.
When Lavender went through transcripts of interviews conducted with Clyburn, she uncovered a direct connection with Clyburn. Her great-grandfather of her, Robert Graham, had been the bus driver tasked with taking Clyburn to Sarasota High.
Lavender made that discovery on the anniversary of the death of her father, Edker Graham, and the connection with Clyburn comforted her.
The two exchanged emails and later spoke on the phone and developed a bond.
“He was a man of wisdom, a man who wanted to influence others to change,” Lavender said. They talked about ways to effect that change, specifically curbing drug problems in Newtown.
“He talked a lot about solutions, not just problems,” Lavender said. “He was a man of wisdom, a man who wanted solutions and willing to put in the effort to make those solutions reality.”
Shaw, who learned of his classmate’s passing on Sunday, while preparing for a family and friends day at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, said, “There was such a sense of humility within him, he exemplified Booker’s class of 1965.
“Any moment you spent with Dr. Clyburn was a memorable one,” he added. “When you were in his company, that was always a good place.”
Oldham, whose organization is building a history museum and art center in Sarasota’s Newtown community, mostly focuses on the clarity of detail with which Clyburn could recall his teen years.
“He was this master storyteller,” Oldham said. “He remembered every detail down to what his penny loafers sounded like as he walked off that school bus on that first day of school at Sarasota High – he remembered the sound of his penny loafers hitting the floor and stepping down off of the bus.”
Clyburn also talked about the bond he formed with Robert Graham, who heard about his days – the verbal abuse or indifference in the halls, as well as the time another student fired a gun in his direction through a bathroom wall.
The day Clyburn told Graham about that incident, he asked the man to not take him to school and instead they detoured to the beach in Venice, where they talked about the trials the teenager endured.
Graham, himself a dropout, counseled Clyburn to stay in school.
Clyburn went on to document his own story in a book published via Amazon.com last April: “I Am Because We Are: Aspects of Becoming an Agent of Social Change in My Community.”
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He published that book through the help of Dr. India White, who he had mentored while she completed her doctoral dissertation.
“This hit me like no other loss, I felt like something cut my heart open,” said White, who considered Clyburn a father figure. “I’ve lost my mom, I’ve lost my dad, my brother, my sister but this one, he was a father that I felt God gave me to help me along this journey as an education and a leader.
“I felt there were so many things he had taught me and was teaching me as a leader,” she added. “It’s been devastating; I miss him.”
Clyburn did finish a second, more contemporary book about fear, with the working title; “Recognizing Fear of Others as a Normalcy in the United States.”
That book was inspired by recent events such as the Derek Chauvin trial after the death of George Floyd; and the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol.
“There’s just so much happening right now,” Clyburn told the Herald-Tribune in an April 2021 interview. “There’s some deep-rooted misconceptions happening in all of this – we have lost our way right now; we have lost our way in trying to communicate with each other.
”We’re all in silos or in our own lanes,” he later continued. “We don’t want anyone to bother us and we don’t know how to talk to each other, even when there are challenges ahead.
“Sometimes we all need to step back and listen to the other side.”
White appreciated the message of inclusion from her mentor.
“His message was we have to go beyond our fear of the unknown beyond other races, other genders,” White said. “Don’t live in your fear, don’t live in your silos but let’s work together.”
“His message was beautiful. Dr. Clyburn was all about inclusion and diversity.”
Christina Clyburn said the family intends to publish her second book.
celebration of life
Clyburn is survived by his wife, Brenda Clyburn, five grown children – Thomas Clyburn III; Travis Clyburn; Ashley Clyburn, Traci Clyburn and Christina Clyburn – nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Christina Clyburn said her father wanted a simple celebration of life.
The family will host that at 2 pm Saturday, at 1604 89th Street, Bradenton.
Prior to his bouts with lung cancer, Clyburn also survived prostate cancer about 25 years ago.
Christina Clyburn recalled her father – wearing a neck brace and using crutches to move around – helping host a sleepover party for her sixth birthday.
Clyburn answered the door for each young guest, made dinner for everyone and was up early the next morning to make waffles, bacon and eggs for breakfast.
“He’s just such a powerhouse that he’s not willing to let anything take him down,” she recalled.
Christina Clyburn noted that her father was attentive to every child.
Her father coached her brothers in T-ball, baseball football and was in the stands when he wasn’t on the sidelines.
“He was very overly loving, like in the best way,” she said. “When I grew up I grew to learn and understand how much love my parents had not only for each other but for us – it trickled down so much as a showering of affection.”
He didn’t talk with his children about his experiences at Sarasota High while they were young but shared more as they grew older.
“It’s huge, I’ve been with him to receive an award, acknowledgment for the role he played but he is such a humble person, to him this is the work that he chose to do for the world and not to brag about,” Christina Clyburn said.
Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.