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Women's History: Living legacy of South Mountain HS first female principal

Posted at 6:42 PM, Mar 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-25 21:42:48-04

PHOENIX — When Josephine Pete arrived at South Mountain High School in the 1950's just about everything about it was a tribute to the Confederacy.

"The United States flag, the state flag and the rebel flag flew in the courtyard," she told ABC15.

Their mascot: Rebels.

"So many people saw nothing wrong with it. But there were those of us students who did. And because we had no support, very little was done," she said.

It was hurtful to Pete and the dozens of Black students that attended the school that had predominantly White students at the time.

While Pete was still a student, she said the Confederate flag came down. But the rebel mascot stayed. And with so much to lose she said they were afraid to press the issue.

"We valued school. We valued an education. We didn't want to do anything that was going to get us put out of school," she said.

Education is a calling Pete would spend the rest of her life fulfilling.

First as a teacher, then counselor during turbulent times in the 1970s when riots were happening in schools around the country.

"Mr. Calvin Goode and I were at Phoenix Union [High School]. I was a counselor. He was a school community worker," she said. " You've heard of ambulance chasers? We were the riot chasers. When there was an outbreak or conflict Mr. Goode and I would jump in the car and go to the scene of whatever the incident was."

Pete eventually earned her doctorate and entered administration as a dean and assistant principal.

By the late 1970s she was up for a position not held by many women at the time: high school principal.

"I hired all the teachers. Scheduled all the kids in classes. Closed school," she said about her time as an interim principal.

But even after putting in the work, "I was told it’s not your turn."

So she waited.

By the mid-1980s, "I had an option to go to Central High or South Mountain. I said, 'Send me home.'"

Thirty years after graduating, Pete had unfinished business with her alma mater.

She arrived as an assistant principal and a couple of years later it was finally her turn, but there were still barriers to break.

"They said, 'Well it's a rough school. We don't know if a woman can run that school.' And that's what made me interested," she said.

And that's how Dr. Josephine Pete became the first woman principal of South Mountain High School.

It had changed dramatically since she attended. Many White families had moved out of the district so the racial makeup was split evenly between White, Black and Hispanic students.

At the time racial tensions were high, and academic achievement was not. Pete was ready to get to work.

"There's nothing wrong with the school. It's a school. The kids are wonderful. They just need somebody to work with them," she said.

And she did.

She oversaw the implementation of the school's magnet programs for specialized study like aerospace and law as part of Phoenix Union High School District's federal desegregation order.

"We raised the graduation rate, reduced the dropout rate and I think the community was proud to have the school there," she said.

Then there was the matter of the mascot.

"Oh, the rebel grew to be an old man. He really did," she said.

Only this time around there was momentum to finally get rid of him.

"We had strong community support," something Pete and her fellow students did not enjoy during their time at South Mountain.

But it wasn't without very vocal opposition.

Old alumni protested the change, and some students staged a walkout. In the end, support to remove the rebel outweighed the desire to keep it.

"They were people who lived in the community, they had children in the school and that's what they wanted," she said.

South Mountain's mascot has been the Jaguars ever since.

Pete left the school in 1990 and soon became the first Black woman deputy superintendent Phoenix Union High School District, the position from which she retired.

As proud as she is of all her firsts, Pete is more proud that she hasn't been the only.

"I think its a good thing you know? I always tell people, 'You're the only one? I'm the only one!' Then you're not doing your job."