Florida Southern College set a positive precedent by enrolling Dorothy Colbert prior to the desegregation of some public schools in Lakeland, FL

Feb 28, 2022

by FSC Staff

Rev. Dorothy C. Cobbett was truly a trailblazer as one of the first Black fulltime undergraduate students at Florida Southern College.

She is currently a retired United Methodist minister who resides in Brentwood, Tenn. However, her familial and academic roots are in Lakeland, Fla. She and her nine siblings were all born and raised in Polk County. Like several of her older siblings, Cobbett attended William A. Rochelle High School, the high school attended by all Black students living in Lakeland and its surrounding areas prior to desegregation.

Cobbett earned the honor of being the valedictorian of the class of 1965 at Rochelle High School. Therefore, it is somewhat fitting that she also had the distinction of being one of FSC’s first Black fulltime undergraduate students. In Polk County, prior to 1969, Black students attended separate schools from White students in the public school system. However, Cobbett attended FSC from Fall of 1965 to Spring 1969. She initially enrolled as Dorothy June Colbert. She was married while enrolled, so she graduated under her married name Dorothy Colbert Cummings.

According to Cobbett, getting a good education was a priority in the Colbert household. She applied to FSC with the encouragement of her adoptive mother, Mrs. Ethel Stewart Colbert. Mrs. Colbert was a teacher for over 40 years at Rochelle Elementary School in Lakeland. Cobbett joked that studying was her pastime at home.

“I was well received by students and teachers at FSC,” she said. “I studied German for two years at FSC with Dr. Juliana Jordan, who invited me to participate in the German Club that she sponsored. I have fond memories of my time in her class and club.” Cobbett was also a member of the honorary biological fraternity, Beta Beta Beta at FSC.

When asked if segregation affected her experience at FSC, Cobbett states, “Yes, there were some limitations due to segregation. Activities outside of campus were limited and I did not attend social activities on campus that required a male escort.” She says personal safety concerns limited her social life both on and off campus. She had no contact with classmates after graduating, mainly due to segregation and racism that existed at that time.

Prior to graduating from FSC, Cobbett completed a student teaching internship during the fall semester of 1968 at Lakeland Senior High School. She completed the requirements for her FSC graduation in December 1968. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Biology, formally graduating in May 1969. She taught Mathematics at Winter Haven High School from January 1969 until June 1977. Her achievements in Polk County foreshadowed numerous laudable accomplishments as an educator, business professional and community leader.

After leaving her teaching position in Florida, Cobbett worked in the field of education in Nashville. She worked as Director of Field Services at Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA). Her impressive resume includes being an instructor in the Education Leadership Department at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), communications manager at FTP-NEA in Tallahassee, a residential sales realtor, an employment and training program coordinator at YWCA.

Cobbett has a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Education Supervision and Administration, and an education specialist degree in Leadership and Administration. She is a member of Phi Delta Kappa (an honorary education fraternity), Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Civitan Club International, and Girl Scouts of America. She has served as a board member of the Urban League and the League of Women Voters in Nashville. She currently serves as vice president of the Nashville Chapter of Church Women United of Tennessee. She is a member of Leadership Nashville, an organization of business and community leaders. She has served as a pastor in the Methodist church for several years and currently holds several leadership roles at John Wesley United Methodist Church.

She stated, “My experience at Florida Southern College was challenging, yet rewarding. I believe my success as one of the first Black fulltime students at Florida Southern College opened the door for other Black students to attend and also to be successful in life. My training at FSC taught me that perseverance pays off.”