When LeRoy Collins Went to Selma

Though he entered office in 1955 as a segregationist, Florida’s 33rd Governor Thomas LeRoy Collins left office in 1961 as an integrationist and never looked back. In 1964, Collins became director of the newly created Community Relations Service (CRS), a federal agency committed to mediating local racial disputes. He traveled to over 100 communities in the mid-1960s, but it was in Selma, Alabama, where the saga of LeRoy Collins, segregationist turned civil rights supporter, peaked. This is his story:

Portrait of Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, ca. 1955

Portrait of Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, ca. 1955.

In March 1965, the nation confronted its troubled history of race relations on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Reporters flocked to the small town, their cameras capturing the violent tactics inflicted upon peaceful marchers by local police. The press also managed to snap a seemingly less sensational photo of former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins walking alongside known civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and John Lewis. Demanding equal voting rights, King and hundreds of supporters were marching the 50 miles from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery, when Collins briefly joined to confirm the route. However, once the image circulated throughout the country, LeRoy Collins’ legacy became forever linked with the modern civil rights movement. But it also crippled his immediate future as a southern politician. A decade before Selma, Collins, as governor of Florida, defended “separate but equal” as Florida’s “custom and law.” However, as civil rights demonstrations intensified in the late 1950s, Collins’ moderate temperament and commitment to non-violence pushed him to deeply question the morality of segregation.

Born in Tallahassee in 1909, racial segregation was the only way of life young LeRoy Collins knew. “I was raised in the southern tradition of segregation. And like most people in the South I felt that this was all right,” he later reflected. During his first campaign for governor in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the case of Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional. In contrast to the massive resistance mounted by neighboring southern states, Collins made no immediate comment on the matter and resolved to wait for further instruction from the high court. Instead, his administration remained focused on its original goal of developing Florida’s economy. When he finally spoke on the matter, the governor cited the law, not radical defiance, as the best tool for circumventing desegregation.

Pro-segregation statement issued by Governor LeRoy Collins pledging to maintain segregation in Florida, February 2, 1956. Governor LeRoy Collins Papers, box 33, folder 6, State Archives of Florida

Pro-segregation statement issued by Governor LeRoy Collins pledging to maintain segregation in Florida, February 2, 1956. Governor LeRoy Collins Papers (S. 776), box 33, folder 6, State Archives of Florida.

During his second term as governor, Collins began to reconsider his position on segregation. He viewed segregation as more than a simple legal issue, but rather a heavy weight on the southern conscience. Furthermore, while economic advancement had been the cornerstone of his campaign, the statesman soon recognized the correlation between the progress of his home state and the expansion of civil rights.

In 1957, the Florida Legislature opposed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education which required the integration of public schools. The Legislature drafted an “interposition resolution” to declare the Court’s decision as null and void. After the Legislature passed the resolution, Collins had no power to veto it, because it was not a law but only a resolution expressing the opinion of the Legislature on the matter of racial integration.

Collins firmly believed in upholding the foundational institutions of American democracy. Never afraid to speak out against extremism, he openly criticized the 1957 Florida Legislature’s “interposition resolution.” The governor opposed interposition precisely because he felt that defying the Supreme Court amounted to “…anarchy and rebellion against the nation… an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria.” He concluded his impassioned, hand-written remarks with unwavering dedication to his principles:

“If history judges me right this day, I want it known that I did my best to avert this blot. If I am judged wrong, then here in my own handwriting and over my signature is the proof of guilt to support my conviction.”

LeRoy Collins' handwritten dissent of the Interposition Resolution, signed May 2, 1957. S. 222, Acts of the Florida Legislature, State Archives of Florida.

LeRoy Collins’ handwritten dissent of the Interposition Resolution, signed May 2, 1957. S. 222, Acts of the Florida Legislature, State Archives of Florida.

Collins’ reaction put him at odds with many white Floridians who sought to protect the status quo, despite strengthened federal civil rights legislation. After denouncing interposition, Collins further revised his position on segregation. The governor’s public response to Tallahassee’s sit-in demonstrations in 1960 revealed the depth of his changed outlook. Amid an atmosphere of heightened racial tensions in Florida’s capital city, the governor appeared before a state-wide audience to address recent events. Collins directly confronted the issue of discrimination at department store lunch counters, a practice he considered “morally wrong” and, although legally permissible, something he could not “square with moral, simple justice.”  “We are foolish if we just think about resolving this thing on a legal basis,” he cautioned viewers. As the governor’s remarks continued, he situated the African-American struggle for civil rights within the broader sweep of American history:

“[W]e can never stop Americans from struggling to be free. We can never stop Americans from hoping and praying that someday in some way this ideal that is embedded in our Declaration of Independence is one of these truths that are inevitable that all men are created equal… that somehow will be a reality and not just an illusory distant goal.”

As Florida’s governor, he recognized the rights of opposing sides to demonstrate peacefully but consistently warned against extremism. He called for the creation of bi-racial committees, composed of moderate-minded citizens, who would work to forge solutions at the community level. Above all, he called for a stronger dialogue from southern moderates: “Where are the people in the middle?” he pleaded. “Why aren’t they talking?”

The clarity of conviction voiced by Collins resonated with National Democratic Party leadership, who selected the Tallahassee native as permanent chairman of the convention held in Los Angeles in 1960. Collins masterfully presided over the proceedings which vaulted John F. Kennedy to the presidency. In his opening address captured in the video below, he implored audience members to promptly address the problems afflicting society, saying “ours is a generation in which great decisions can no longer be passed to the next.”

After the convention, the fifty-one-year-old former governor took a job with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Headquartered in Washington, D.C., Collins sought specifically to harness the power of television to further the public interest. Again, he used his position as a seat of moral responsibility, advocating to curb both violence on television and youth-oriented tobacco ads. When President Kennedy was assassinated, Collins again called moderate southerners to action. “It is time the decent people of the south told the bloody shirt wavers to climb down off the buckboards of bigotry,” he told a crowd of white politicians during a 1963 speech in South Carolina. His remarks increasingly distanced the former governor from his native Florida voting base, where many whites still opposed integration. After three years in Washington, the segregationist Governor Collins of 1955 was fading into a memory. By the early 1960s, his views were aligned more closely with Capitol Hill’s than the state Legislature’s.

LeRoy Collins with President Lyndon B. Johnson during the ceremonial signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964

LeRoy Collins with President Lyndon B. Johnson during the ceremonial signing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964

After the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Collins as Director of the CRS. In this role, Collins was to aid in the enforcement of civil rights legislation in communities across the country in an effort to mediate racial disputes and avoid violent confrontations. Despite the significance of the 1964 law, southern blacks continued to face widespread voter discrimination via literacy tests, voter intimidation and poll taxes. Determined to bring national attention to this reality, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) selected rural Selma, Alabama as their demonstration site. “Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written in Birmingham, we hope that the new federal voting legislation will be written here in Selma,” explained King. When Dr. King was jailed early on in the Selma campaign, he stressed the specific need for Collins to come down from Washington and speak with local authorities about voting policies. Though he waited for federal direction, it was in his role as CRS director that LeRoy Collins arrived in Selma, Alabama on March 9, 1965. The video below contains footage of the racial climate in Selma during the voting rights demonstrations.

On Sunday, March 7, Alabama state police attacked non-violent protestors who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As federal judges weighed the constitutionality of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s injunction against the march, Collins arrived to represent President Johnson and prevent a repeat of the events of “Bloody Sunday.” In the hours leading up to the second planned march, Collins raced back and forth between SCLC officers and Alabama law enforcement determined to halt marchers’ progress towards Montgomery.

At first, Collins urged Dr. King to call off the march. Dr. King told Collins that he “would rather die on the highway in Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience by compromising with evil.” The civil rights leader added that he could not stop the people from marching, even if he himself did not lead them. According to Dr. King, Collins then presented an alternative plan. The marchers would cross the bridge, face the state police but not attempt to pass their barricade, hold a prayer session near the location of the earlier violence, and then return to their church. Collins then presented his plan to the Alabama troopers. After conferring with Governor Wallace, Sheriff Jim Clark agreed to restrain his forces. Having laid out a scenario acceptable to both sides, Collins assumed a position that would place him directly in between the marchers and the state police. With the march already underway, Collins reassured Dr. King of his intentions:

“I’m going to be standing right there with those troops. It’s not that I’m on their side, but I want to be there so that if some of them moves into you I’ll grab him. I’ll sure personally grab him. I don’t know what I’ll do with him after I get him, but I’ll sure try.”

Dr. King halted the march before the line of state police. They prayed, the troopers parted, and the group, led by Dr. King, returned to the church. Both sides could claim apparent victory. The marchers crossed the bridge and returned unharmed to the scene of Bloody Sunday, and the state police upheld Governor Wallace’s injunction banning the march. President Johnson later told Collins that, if not for his presence in Selma on March 9, “blood would [have] be[en] running knee deep in the ditches.”

Several days later, a federal judge lifted Wallace’s injunction, and the marchers made their way to Montgomery. Along the way to the state capitol, Collins and the CRS stood by to ensure their protection. The third march proceeded in peace, but a photograph taken of Collins next to Dr. King and other members of SCLC immortalized the memory of Collins as a federal representative who supported equal rights.

Photograph of LeRoy Collins talking with civil rights marchers (L-R) John Lewis, Andrew Young, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy at Selma in March 1965.

Photograph of LeRoy Collins talking with civil rights marchers (L-R) John Lewis, Andrew Young, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy at Selma in March 1965.

Collins’ political aspirations suffered greatly as a result of his very public role as mediator during the Selma-Montgomery march. When he ran for U.S. Senate in 1968, his opponents used the photograph of “Liberal LeRoy” walking alongside SCLC leadership as evidence of his pro-civil rights agenda. Many supporters of Collins believe this photograph and the criticism he received as CRS director greatly contributed to his defeat at the polls. In the election, Collins garnered only 48% in his home district of Leon County. Twenty-four years earlier, he was elected governor with 99% of the vote in Leon County, and 80% state-wide.

Below is a clip from a promotional film released during Collins’ 1968 U.S. Senate campaign, highlighting the courage of his actions at Selma:

Many years later, Governor Collins reflected on his decision to stand up for what he believed: “…if I had to do it over again, I would do the same thing… And I would do this even if I knew it would materially influence my defeat for the United States Senate.” The legacy of Governor LeRoy Collins is revealed not only in his commitment to his ideals, but also as an example of an individual who evolved his beliefs in reaction to the changing world around him. After leaving politics, Collins reflected on the consequences of his involvement with the CRS. “Looking back,” he said “I would still accept that job that the President called on me to do and I would have still gone to Selma.”

Portrait of LeRoy Collins in front of The Grove, 1985. In 1985, the former governor and his wife, Mary Call Darby Collins, deeded the property to the state, with the express purpose of transforming it into a public museum after both their deaths. LeRoy Collins passed away in 1991 and Mary Call in 2009. In 2010, the state began its restoration of The Grove.

Portrait of LeRoy Collins in front of The Grove, 1985. In 1985, the former governor and his wife, Mary Call Darby Collins, deeded the property to the state, with the express purpose of transforming it into a public museum after both their deaths. LeRoy Collins passed away in 1991 and Mary Call in 2009. Shortly thereafter, the state began its restoration of The Grove.

In March 2017, the Florida Department of State opened The Grove Museum, Governor Collins’ family home in Tallahassee. Built in the 1830s, The Grove was home to two-time territorial governor of Florida, Richard Keith Call, and his descendants. From slavery to civil rights, the exhibits at The Grove Museum cover 200 years of Florida history.

***Executive Director of The Grove Museum Johnathan Grandage also contributed to the research and writing of this post.

 

The History of Stanton High School

Once heralded by the Florida Times-Union as the “crown jewel of Jacksonville’s public schools,” Stanton College Preparatory School’s nationally recognized academic magnet program has attracted widespread publicity since the Duval County School Board first implemented the curriculum in the early 1980s. In 2016, U.S. News and World Report ranked Stanton fifth out of Florida’s 889 public high schools and thirty-third out of all public schools in the nation. But Stanton’s roots as an exceptional scholastic institution stretch back much further than the inception of the magnet program. For nearly a century, from Reconstruction until school desegregation orders came in the 1950s, Stanton High School operated one of the most well-regarded secondary schools for African-American students in Florida. 

View of Stanton Institute, 1870.

View of Stanton Institute, 1870.

Named after Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, Stanton Institute, which later became known as Stanton High School, began as the first and only public secondary school for African-Americans in Reconstruction Florida. There were approximately 62,000 newly emancipated slaves in Florida, and many of them flocked to Jacksonville looking for job opportunities and cheap land in the port city. Eager to start their own communities after emancipation, local blacks built churches, schools, social organizations, and businesses. The Colored Education Society of Jacksonville formed out of these grassroots efforts. At the same time, both the American Missionary Association (AMA), a northern benevolent aid society, and the federally funded Freedmen’s Bureau established a presence in northeast Florida. The three entities worked together to support the establishment and staffing of schools for blacks.   

Pamphlet advertising land for sale in Jacksonville and the services offered by the Freedman's Savings Bank, 1867. During Reconstruction, both the Freedman's Savings Bank and the American Missionary Association set up their state headquarters in Jacksonville. State Library of Florida.

Pamphlet advertising land for sale in Jacksonville and the services offered by the Freedman’s Savings Bank, 1867. During Reconstruction, both the Freedman’s Savings Bank and the American Missionary Association set up headquarters offices in Jacksonville. State Library of Florida.

In 1866, the Florida Legislature sought to abate white anxieties over educated blacks and passed a law requiring the establishment of separate schools for blacks and whites. At that time, three schools for Jacksonville’s freedmen and women existed, but they employed only a total of four teachers responsible for the instruction of a total of 530 pupils. In response to the shortage of qualified black teachers, the Colored Education Society of Jacksonville and local black freeholders raised 850 dollars to purchase a large plot of land on Beaver Street, from white unionist and future Florida governor, Ossian B. Hart, and his wife, Catherine. The Harts endowed the black community with a ninety-nine year lease, specifying the plot be used for the express purpose of educating blacks and training them as teachers. Unfortunately, no additional capital was available for the immediate construction of a training school. The Freedman’s Bureau donated $16,000 to build Stanton Institute with the purpose of training African-American women from the ages of sixteen to twenty-five as educators. The Freedmen’s Bureau erected the Stanton Institute on the corner of Ashley and Bridge (later Broad) streets in December 1868, and officially opened it for use on April 10, 1869.  In addition to operating a teacher training program, the new building also facilitated a grammar school. The first class at Stanton was comprised of 348 black students, six white teachers and a number of black staff.

Excerpt from 1876 Birdseye view map of Jacksonville.

Excerpt from an 1876 bird’s-eye view map of Jacksonville, with Stanton highlighted in gold on the corner of Ashley and Bridge streets. State Library of Florida map collection. Note: Archives staff highlighted the location for emphasis, the original map is monochromatic.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the presence of northern aid societies quickly diminished in Florida, and the financing of public education for African-Americans came under control of local school boards. The Duval County School Board first listed Stanton as a public school in 1882. Once staffed by a majority of white teachers, by the 1880s black educators made up the entirety of Stanton faculty, and they worked to upgrade the curriculum to meet new state standards. Even in its infancy, Stanton was touted as the “best school for blacks in the state” by reviewers. The news about the black educational marvel in Jacksonville extended across state lines, as the site developed into a popular destination for late nineteenth century tourists.

Print of Stanton Institute, ca. 1880.

Stereo print of Stanton Institute, ca. 1880. This print is one half of a stereograph, produced by photographer Charles Seaver in the late 19th century as part of a series he did on southern attractions. When viewed through a stereo viewer, the image appears three-dimensional. Stereography was a popular method for sharing images of notable scenes and sites. It is likely that people living outside of Florida saw this image of Stanton as an example of a school for African-Americans in the South.

Principal James Weldon Johnson, a Stanton alumnus and the first African-American to serve as Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, elevated Stanton to a high school level in the 1890s. For a number of years Stanton was the only secondary school for African-Americans in Jacksonville, and one of the few in the state. By 1900, a reported seventy-three percent of local blacks could read and write. Other notable Stanton alumni include journalist T. Thomas Fortune, Olympic long-jumper Edward “Ned” Orval Gourdin, and Jacksonville philanthropist Eartha M.M. White.

Portrait of Principal James Weldon Johnson, ca. 1900. Johnson served as principal of Stanton from 1894 until 1902. After school board officials denied James Weldon Johnson a $75 per month pay increase, he resigned and relocated to New York City.

Portrait of Principal James Weldon Johnson, ca. 1900. Johnson served as principal of Stanton from 1894 until 1902. Johnson’s mother, Helen Dillet Johnson, was one of the first black teachers in the state and taught at Stanton for two decades. Both of her sons, James Weldon and John Rosamond, completed eight grade educations at Stanton in the 1880s. After furthering his education at Atlanta University, James Weldon Johnson returned to Jacksonville and took the job as principal of Stanton. During this time, he established the Daily American, a short-lived newspaper dedicated to covering black life. Additionally, he became the first African-American admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. After school board officials denied  Johnson’s request for a pay increase comparable to white salaries, he resigned and relocated to New York City.

 

The rebuilt Stanton Institute, 1897. A fire destroyed the original wooden building in 1882.

The second Stanton Institute building, 1897. A fire twice destroyed the school, once in 1882 and again in 1901. Property insurance paid to rebuild the school after both incidents.

A consistent  lack of maintenance funding from the county school board plunged Stanton into physical disrepair by the early 20th century. Stanton’s trustees filed suit against the Duval County Schools (Floyd v. Board of Public Instruction, 1915), alleging the unacceptable conditions of the school. Officials agreed to construct a new brick building in its place, but again refused to allocate proper funds for building maintenance. By the 1920s, the new Stanton building was already deteriorating.

The new brick Stanton School building, ca. 1917.

The new brick Stanton School building, ca. 1917.

This negligence reflected general trends afflicting black education in Florida during Jim Crow. As of 1942, Duval County operated a total of forty-two schools for African-Americans, but only one of those, Stanton, offered courses at the high school level. Beginning in 1938, Stanton stopped offering all grade levels and taught secondary education students only. Nearly every black school in the district suffered from a disparate level of resources. For example, in 1946, the annual per capita expenditure of $70.24 at black high schools in Duval County could not compete with the $104.50 spent on each white student pursuing a secondary education. Out of the ninety-five black teachers in the county holding at least a bachelor’s degree, ninety-one received a monthly salary of $189, while whites with the same credentials received an average $233 per month in 1946.

 

Portrait of Stanton High School French teacher, Cora Ross, ca. 1930.

Portrait of Stanton French teacher, Cora Ross, ca. 1930.

Photograph of the Stanton High School track team, 1925.

Photograph of the Stanton track team, 1925.

Graduation portrait of Stanton alumna Eva Cobb Rosier, 1933

Graduation portrait of Stanton alumna Eva Cobb Rosier, 1933.

1935 Graduation portrait of Stanton students Pearlie Cobb Scarborough and Thomas Morris

1935 graduation portrait of Stanton students Pearlie Cobb Scarborough and Thomas Morris.

Portrait of the 1933 graduating class of Stanton High School.

Portrait of the 1933 graduating class of Stanton.

After two decades of petitioning the Duval County School Board for an updated African-American high school plant, officials finally obliged. On November 24, 1953, student, faculty, and interested locals dedicated the new $1.5 million Stanton High School. The previous structure on Broad and Ashley became known as Old Stanton, and the new high school, New Stanton. The new school was equipped to educate a maximum of 1,500 pupils on a 24-acre plot located at 1149 W. 13th Street. After the high school’s student body relocated, the school board converted the old Stanton building first into a middle school, and then into the designated black vocational school, until 1971, when officials condemned the dilapidated structure. In the 1990s, the structure reopened as a private school called the Academy of Excellence.

Aerial view of the new Stanton High School building, ca. 1953.

Aerial view of the New Stanton High School building, ca. 1953.

A year after the new Stanton building opened, rumblings on the national level began to steer the school in a new direction. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education). The judicial body later ordered segregated school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” The vague implementation language allowed southern school boards to delay integration for over a decade. In the video clip below, Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas Bailey discuss some of the tactics used to circumvent the order.

During this time, life at Stanton carried on much as it had before the landmark legal ruling. Overcrowding forced students to attend classes in shifts and a lack of resources handicapped instruction. Despite these shortcomings, Stanton students and faculty took great pride in their school. In 1959, Jacksonville’s black newspaper, The Florida Star named Stanton “the best landscaped school in the city.” In 1961, New Stanton’s yearbook and newspaper staff won multiple awards at the 11th Annual Intercollegiate Press Workshop held at Florida A&M University. Faculty also made certain to instill strong character in their students. Alumnus Rudolph Daniels recalled Principal Brooks’ infamously stern demeanor: “If it was time to be in class, they’d better be in class.  It if it was time for sports or activities, they should be involved in those. He wanted students to be equally involved in different things to make them well rounded people.” During Brooks’ tenure the school flourished as an asset and centerpiece of Jacksonville’s middle-class black community. “Almost every Black [sic] who is in business in this city finished under me,” concluded the retired educator.

Students from the new Stanton High School performing at the Florida Folklife Festival in White Springs, 1956.

Students from New Stanton High School performing at the Florida Folklife Festival in White Springs, 1956.

Though Jacksonville’s black parents sued Duval County School Board for refusal to integrate local schools (Braxton v. Duval County, 1960), meaningful racial integration did not commence until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of the federal legislation empowered the Department of Health Education and Welfare to withhold funding from those districts non-compliant with integration orders. Florida lawmakers responded. The following school year, all sixty-seven counties in the Sunshine State adopted plans for integration, including Duval. Later Supreme Court rulings in Green v. New Kent County(1968) and Alexander v. Holmes County (1969) placed additional pressure on local school boards to integrate immediately and dismantle segregated school systems “root and branch.” A federal judge ordered all student, faculty, and staff fully integrated by Feb 1, 1970.  

Mrs. Pearson picks up her youngest daughter from the newly integrated Fulford Elementary School in Miami, September 6, 1960. in 1959, Dade County became the first Florida school district to integrate black and whites students. Other districts, such as Duval, opposed such action until the late 1960s.

Mrs. Pearson picks up her youngest daughter from the newly integrated Fulford Elementary School in Miami, September 6, 1960. In 1959 Dade County became the first Florida school district to integrate black and whites students. Other districts, such as Duval, opposed such action until the mid to late 1960s.

While Jacksonville schools officially achieved a unified school district by federal standards in the early 1970s, the majority of schools, including Stanton, remained racially divided. In the post-desegregation era, Stanton’s identity as an outstanding community school began to change. The school board converted it into a vocational school in 1971. Principal Charles D. Brooks left the school in 1968, but went on to characterize Stanton after 1971 in telling detail: “It seemed that one objective of the school board was to keep white students out of Stanton. We integrated with them, but they didn’t integrate with us.” Just as before Brown, African-American pupils at Stanton still suffered from the legacy of Jim Crow. Throughout the 1970s, New Stanton’s student body faced a new battle with poor performance. A 1977 report of standardized test scores ranked Stanton with the lowest pass rates in Duval County for both math and reading. Further, the school reported the highest dropout rate in the district.  

Though fortunate to survive the consolidation process of school desegregation in the 1960s–school boards routinely closed black high schools to meet integration standards–Stanton’s reputation as the best school for blacks in Florida waned in the 1970s. Once plagued by overcrowding, by 1980 the one hundred percent black school filled only one third of its capacity; the school board had anticipated the matriculation of hundreds of white students after integration, but none chose to enroll at Stanton. Board officials even considered closing the plant, just as they had done with the Old Stanton building ten years earlier. Desperate to preserve Stanton as a piece of Jacksonville’s history, the black community rallied to save the school. The school board appointed Stanton graduate and University of North Florida professor, Dr. Andrew Robinson to find a solution for revitalizing and integrating the school. Duval County ultimately chose to tap resources from the Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA), the federal government’s primary source for funding school desegregation efforts. In an effort to attract a more diverse mix of students, the school reopened as Stanton College Preparatory School in 1981 and began offering a magnet program with a focus on academic excellence. However, thirty-five years later, the effectiveness of the magnet program in achieving racial integration remains questionable. According to the most recent data compiled by the Florida Department of Education, Stanton’s student body is 48 percent white and only 17.7 percent black, but blacks comprise 44 percent of Duval County’s total student population. Moreover, only 13.2 percent of Stanton students are economically disadvantaged, whereas 43.8 percent of pupils living in the district come from low-income households.

From 2000-2003 Newsweek rated Stanton as the number one public school in the United States, and it continues to enjoy an outstanding reputation. For all of Stanton’s modern achievements, though, current students and faculty are careful to remember the school’s important place in the history of African-American education in Florida.

Selected Sources:

Stanton High School Collection. Jacksonville: Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections.

Eartha M.M. White Papers. Jacksonville: University of North Florida Special Collections.

Bartley, Abel A. Keeping the Faith: Race, Politics, and Social Development in Jacksonville,  Florida, 1940-1970. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Florida Times-Union

Florida Star

Florida Department of Education

 

Richard Ervin and the Gradualist Approach to Desegregation

On May 12, 1955, Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin submitted an amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court proposing a gradual approach to school integration. The court had just recently ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The court chose to shelve the case for a year, citing a need for further study on how best to implement the decision. Sensing an opportunity to preserve segregation, acting Florida Governor Charley Johns enlisted the expertise of Attorney General Ervin, State Superintendent of Education Thomas D. Bailey, and Florida State University sociologist Lewis Killian to compile a report outlining the “practical problems involved [with desegregation] and recommendations” for implementation.  The Florida Cabinet approved a $10, 000 budget for the study, which began in the summer of 1954.  Killian began by seeking the opinions of elected officials, journalists, educators, and police chiefs on the subject. Approximately 8,000 surveys reached a biracial sample of community leaders, with a total response rate of fifty one percent.

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools  (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The responses from African-Americans revealed several prevalent fears associated with desegregating Florida’s public schools, including “withdrawal of white children from the public schools, the maintenance of discipline in mixed classes by Negro [sic.] teachers, refusal to employ Negro teachers for mixed schools, and difficulty in obtaining white teachers” as the “outstanding potential problems found to be expected.” White responses emphasized similar concerns over such matters as maintaining discipline in mixed classrooms, questionable cooperation of white parents, and violent outbreaks.  In a telling statistic, seventy-five percent of African-American participants supported the Brown ruling and believe the majority of whites did also.  In contrast, a similar percentage of whites thought blacks largely supported segregation. Armed with Killian’s results, Attorney General Ervin made a strong case for gradualism. After a year of delay, the United States Supreme Court reconvened in spring 1955 to clarify the federal enforcement of desegregation in a session aptly nicknamed Brown II.  The court considered the research of ten states regarding school desegregation, lauding Attorney General Ervin’s brief as a particularly strong resource. On May 31, 1955, after much deliberation, the justices handed down their decision.  The court mandated that compliance with the Brown decision should occur with “a prompt and reasonable start,” carried out with “all deliberate speed.”  The vague language coupled with Ervin’s push for gradualism foreshadowed the long battle for school desegregation in post-Brown Florida.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

 

 

Virgil Hawkins and the Fight to Integrate the University of Florida Law School

On May 13, 1949, a forty-three year old man from Lake County named Virgil Darnell Hawkins received a letter from the University of Florida Law School rejecting his application because he was African-American.  Hawkins refused to accept the prejudiced decision without a fight, and promptly filed suit against the Florida Board of Control in 1950. His legal battle would carry on for nine years, laying the foundation for the integration of Florida’s graduate and professional schools.

Portrait of Virgil Darnell Hawkins (circa 1960s).

Portrait of Virgil Darnell Hawkins (circa 1960s).

Despite the larger civil rights victory, Hawkins emerged from the ordeal partially defeated as he never gained admission to the institution he considered “one of the finest law schools in the country.” The case of Virgil Hawkins v. Board of Control brought Florida into the national school desegregation conversation, serving as an antecedent to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Furthermore, Hawkins’ ordeal underscores the tenacity with which segregation advocates fought the drive for an integrated university system, some even going so far as to suggest that such a change would incite “public mischief.”

College of Law buildings at the University of Florida (circa 1950s).

College of Law buildings at the University of Florida (circa 1950s).

Before Virgil Hawkins took his stand, there was no law school for African-Americans in Florida. Rather than fund a separate institution in Florida or permit African-Americans to attend an existing school with whites, the state instituted a law in 1945 to provide scholarships for select African-American students to study at segregated law schools outside the state. When Virgil Hawkins refused to accept that alternative, the Board of Control approved plans to open a segregated law school at Florida A&M College. By 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on two related cases, Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma, professing the inherent inequality of segregated graduate institutions. Despite these rulings, the Florida court still refused to admit Hawkins, and would continue to refuse even after the so-called Brown II decree issued by the Supreme Court in 1955 to clarify the original Brown decision. Hawkins persisted in his fight against the state’s segregationist position, but more challenges were on the way. In 1958, the Board of Control established a new minimum score on the law school entry exam for incoming students, setting the admission threshold fifty points above Hawkins’ 1956 score. As a result, Hawkins was officially denied not because of his race, but rather because he was disqualified by the new rules regarding test scores.  Later that summer, federal district judge Dozier DeVane mandated that all qualified applicants be admitted to graduate and professional schools in Florida regardless of race.

Judge Dozier DeVane, who ruled that qualified applicants had to be admitted to law and graduate programs regardless of race, stands at right in this photo, along with Harrold G. Carswell (center) and an unknown man at left (1953).

Judge Dozier DeVane, who ruled that qualified applicants had to be admitted to law and graduate programs regardless of race, stands at right in this photo, along with Harrold G. Carswell (center) and an unknown man at left (1953).

Nine years after the initial integration suit, African-American veteran George H. Starke, not Virgil Hawkins, enrolled at the University of Florida Law School in September 1958 without incident. As for Virgil Hawkins, he eventually received his law degree in New England, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977. He resigned in 1985 following complaints about his practice.

Virgil D. Hawkins speaks with supporters while on recess during his disciplinary case before the Florida Supreme Court (1983).

Virgil D. Hawkins speaks with supporters while on recess during his disciplinary case before the Florida Supreme Court (1983).

Virgil Hawkins’ case is an excellent example of how the Civil Rights Movement played out in the courtrooms of Florida as much as it did at lunch counters, public beaches, and city buses. The legal battles fought by Hawkins and others laid the groundwork for an integrated education system for all of Florida.

Florida proudly joins the rest of the United States in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. For more information about events commemorating the Civil Rights Movement, see our Events Calendar.

 

LeRoy Collins and the Brown Decision

Saturday, May 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The unanimous ruling overturned the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which had served as the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation in public facilities across the South, especially in the public schools. The court argued that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that African American children attending segregated schools were deprived of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Most elected officials in Florida, as in other Southern states, recoiled from the Supreme Court’s decision and explored their options for keeping Jim Crow firmly in place. The state first responded by asking the Supreme Court to stay its ruling while it studied the potential effects of desegregation with the help of social scientists.

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at "The Grove" in Tallahassee. "The Grove," built around 1840 by Florida's territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at “The Grove” in Tallahassee. “The Grove,” built around 1840 by Florida’s territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins, who took office in January 1955, faced a difficult situation. On the one hand, he recognized that extremism on the segregation issue could cost Florida in terms of tourism and business growth. On the other hand, state legislators favoring complete retention of Jim Crow without compromise were powerful and vocal. Collins attempted to chart a middle course that would preserve school segregation while also retaining Florida’s image as a progressive state. In 1957, he asked the Legislature to approve a committee on race relations that would help maintain domestic order and improve living standards for African Americans. Florida lawmakers responded by passing a resolution alleging that the U.S. Supreme Court had overstepped its mandate in ruling school segregation illegal. The resolution called on the State (in essence, Collins) to “interpose its powers between its people and the effort of the said Court to assert an unlawful dominion over them.” The full text of the resolution is available as part of our Significant Documents exhibit.

First page of the Florida Legislature's

First page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution (May 1957).

Collins was infuriated by the measure because it was exactly the kind of extreme reaction he feared would hurt Florida in the long run. Because the legislation was merely a resolution and not a bill designed to become law, the governor could not veto it. He did, however, have the opportunity to sign the resolution when it came to his office as a matter of procedure. In place of his signature, Collins filled the middle of the page with a lengthy and dramatic protest against the resolution, calling it an “evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria.”

The final page of the Florida Legislature's

The final page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution, with Governor Collins’ protest written around the space for his signature (May 1957).

The full text of Governor Collins’ statement:

This concurrent resolution of ‘Interposition’ crosses the Governor’s desk as a matter of routine. I have no authority to veto it. I take this means however to advise the student of government, who may examine this document in the archives of the state in the years to come that the Governor of Florida expressed open and vigorous opposition thereto. I feel that the U. S. Supreme Court has improperly usurped powers reserved to the states under the constitution. I have joined in protesting such and in seeking legal means of avoidance. But if this resolution declaring the decisions of the court to be ‘null and void’ is to be taken seriously, it is anarchy and rebellion against the nation which must remain ‘indivisible under God’ if it is to survive. Not only will I not condone ‘interposition’ as so many have sought me to do, I decry it as an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria. If history judges me right this day, I want it known that I did my best to avert this blot. If I am judged wrong, then here in my own handwriting and over my signature is the proof of guilt to support my conviction.

Although Collins’ statement captured a great deal of attention, the Legislature was unmoved. In the same session, it passed a law allowing schools to be closed in the event the federal government used force to desegregate them. Florida’s public schools remained almost completely segregated until after 1960.
Teachers, for information on how to use the resources of Florida Memory pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement in your classroom, visit our Black History Month resource page and the Civil Rights Movement in Florida learning unit.