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WMFE highlights the contributions of Black Leaders across Central Florida as part of Black History Month

At 95, Ulysses Floyd shares legacy of service to children and teachers union

A 95-year-old man wearing glasses smiles for a portrait.
Joe Byrnes
Ulysses Floyd describes himself as a "talker" devoted to the education of the children and the teachers union.

WMFE sought nominations for profiles during Black History Month. A couple of people nominated Ulysses Floyd, a retired teacher and beloved pioneer with the Orange County teachers union.

Ulysses Floyd sat for an interview at his friend Wendy Doromal’s home in Orlando.

Doromal, a former president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, said he remains the "heart and soul" of the union.

"He's just such a wonderful, unforgettable person, whether as a teacher and advocate, civil rights worker, labor activist, he's unforgettable," she said.

Floyd is 95 now. He taught elementary school in Orange County – at Webster Avenue, Hungerford and Sadler -- for 32 years before retiring in 1990.

Floyd stays involved in the school district, serving on an oversight committee.

He's also still involved with the union, for which he is an honorary non-voting board member. He hasn’t missed a national convention in 50 years.

"My first convention, I fell in love with it," Floyd said. "I remember it was in Portland, Oregon."

At the last one, convention-goers in Orlando could buy a t-shirt featuring Floyd as "The Closer." He has a reputation for moving to close debate when it becomes pointless.

Ulysses Floyd moves to close debate at the National Education Assocation convention in 2016.
Submitted photo
Wendy Doromal
Ulysses Floyd moves to close debate at the National Education Assocation convention in 2016.

But make no mistake, Floyd has a life-long love for talking – in the classroom, the union hall, the bargaining table -- and he values listening, especially listening to what children have to say.

"I love kids," Floyd said. "And I will talk to any kid who wants to talk. I listen to him. And sometimes I listen, and I don’t even make a comment. But that's something they want to talk about. And I just feel, I don't know that the Lord has made me into a good listener."

Floyd said he was born in Jacksonville and served in the Army twice. He enlisted in 1946 at age 17. Then he joined the ROTC at Florida A&M and served as an officer in Germany.

"I was the only black officer in my company," he said. It helped prepare him for desegregation back home.

His first teaching job -- in 1958 -- was a third grade class at Webster Avenue.

He loved it.

At the time, the schools and teachers associations were segregated. The unions merged in 1966.

Teachers hold protest signs.
State Archives of Florida
This historical photo shows educators in Orange County holding protest signs during Florida's statewide 1968 teachers strike. Ulysses Floyd said he was the man seated in the front and that he remembered this protest taking place at Lake Eola.

In February 1968, more than 27,000 teachers throughout Florida staged a walkout, following a months-long battle between the Florida Education Association and Gov. Claude Kirk over education funding.

Floyd said the walkout wasn’t just for the teachers – but also to improve things for the students.

"As far as especially black kids were concerned," he added, "we were given books that had already been used. We're now given brand new books, and prior to that time, and we fought tooth and nail, to be able to get the same thing that the other group was getting."

In 1974, after Orange County schools were desegregated, Floyd was president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.

It was the first time they were able to bargain for a contract, Floyd said. "And that was really what we wanted to do … and be able to talk about our salary, talk about working conditions and talk about what was right and what was wrong."

Floyd said he can’t imagine a world without teachers. But it’s the children -- especially those who are struggling -- who have a special place in his heart.

"And I make no distinction," he said, "whether you are an A student or a D student because my job is to make sure that you understand that you're somebody."

Of all the stories Floyd could tell, he talks about a dad who said his boy was a slow learner. Floyd took the man to his classroom and showed off the boy’s artwork.

"And so it changed his attitude about his son," Floyd said. "Here's a kid who wasn't smart. But he had a gift. And I was able to find that gift."

Floyd said he liked to tell parents about the good in their children that they didn’t see.

And though Floyd has been retired for more years than he worked in a classroom, he plans to be a teacher for the rest of his life.

Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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