Strawberry Schools

Remember those late spring days back in grade school when all you could think about was the approach of summer vacation? Depending on your age and your preferences, you might have spent the time off swimming, taking family trips, or earning a little spending money at a summer job – anything but sitting still in a classroom.

There was a time, however, when some Florida students took their vacation much earlier in the year, from January through March. A number of counties in Central and South Florida mandated this to accommodate the harvest schedules for winter fruits and vegetables, which provided a living for small family farms. Strawberries were the main Florida crop requiring this arrangement. As a result, schools that operated on the modified April to December calendar were called “strawberry schools.”

Students attending a

Students attending a “strawberry school” in Plant City, Florida (1946).

Strawberries have been cultivated in Florida since the late 1800s. They have been grown in nearly every county in the state at one time or another, but large-scale sustained strawberry farming has mainly been centered in Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Bradford, Union, and Orange counties. These days, commercial strawberry farming is largely confined to large-scale operations with hundreds of acres under cultivation. Up until about the 1950s, however, family farms dominated the industry. In some places, strawberry farming came to define whole communities. Plant City, for example, has long been known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World,” and strawberries have been a key theme in the town’s self-promotion.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Florida strawberries generally become ready to harvest between late December and March, right in the middle of the traditional spring session of the public schools. Farm families depending on the strawberry harvest for their livelihood often enlisted their children’s help tending and picking the berries. Gathering the fruit was only one part of the process; one woman remembered children being responsible for watering the rows of tender plants by hand and covering them with Spanish moss when the weather turned cold.

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Strawberry farmers valued the labor their children provided at harvest time, but they also recognized the importance of their education. Some communities decided to have the best of both worlds by rearranging the school year. This was no new invention; the very idea of summer vacation was originally devised to allow farm children to help their families during the busy summer months. Plus, plenty of other states had similar systems to allow schoolchildren to help out at harvest time. There have at various times been “potato schools” in Connecticut, “apple schools” in New York, “tomato schools” in Ohio, and so on. What Central Florida needed was a “strawberry school” that would allow the students’ off-time to coincide with the strawberry harvest January through March.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 - volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 – volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

And that is exactly what happened in many cases. In earlier years, counties would adjust the school year as needed for their particular harvest season. Once state education authorities began regulating the length and structure of the school calendar, local districts had to request permission to operate on a special schedule. Frequently, only some of the schools in a district would operate on the “summer” or “strawberry” system, while the rest of the county would use the more familiar “winter” system. In at least one case in Polk County, a school remained opened year-round and parents had the opportunity to choose which months their children would attend classes. A similar system was attempted for a few years in the early 1940s in Wimauma in Hillsborough County.

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

If you’re “warm-natured,” taking your vacation in the winter-time might not sound like such a bad idea, especially if you had to spend some portion of it walking up and down the rows of a field picking fruit at ankle level. The system had its problems, as veteran strawberry scholars have explained when asked about their experiences. Former Hillsborough County teacher Myrtis Hawthorne once told Tampa Tribune writer Leland Hawes that she remembered the gnats being so bad in her classroom that she often put a small dab of kerosene on her students’ faces to keep them away. The heat left her little choice but to keep the windows open, and so the gnats simply became part of the experience.

The strawberry school system was a boon for farmers, but several factors combined to bring it to an end in the years following World War II. Migrant workers had become a crucial part of the agricultural labor force during the wartime emergency, and in the postwar years they preferred to be able to move northward in the summer months as crops became ready for harvest. Also, improved roads and increased automobile ownership helped popularize the concept of the family vacation, which many families preferred to take in the summer.

The educational quality of strawberry schools also came into question during this period. In 1946, Tampa Tribune reporter J.A. “Jock” Murray began writing a series of articles criticizing the system as exploitative and academically deficient. Murray’s efforts helped pave the way for Florida’s landmark Minimum Foundation education law of 1947, but the school term remained a local option issue. The tide was turning, however, and in 1956 the Hillsborough County School Board abolished the strawberry school calendar for all of its schools. The remaining strawberry schools in surrounding counties followed suit soon afterward.

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Strawberry farming is still a major winter industry in Central Florida, but these days children spend much more time eating the berries than picking them. Plant City still holds an annual Strawberry Festival that brings in thousands of visitors. This year’s event is coming up soon, by the way – the festival runs March 3-13, 2016. Now that you have a bit of local strawberry history under your belt, you’re all set to give it a try.

If you were a student again, would you choose a three-month winter vacation or a three-month summer vacation? Leave us a comment below or on Facebook with your thoughts!

A Home for Higher Learning

It’s hard to imagine Tallahassee without Florida State University or Gainesville without the University of Florida, but how did they get there? Believe it or not, at one time these institutions existed only on paper, and could have been located anywhere in the state. Multiple towns competed for the honor of hosting them, and the Legislature had to make some tough decisions to choose homes for Florida’s first institutions of higher learning.

Florida’s elected representatives recognized the value of higher education early on, but failed to translate their enthusiasm into action during the territorial era. In 1823, the territorial council voted to set aside two townships’ worth of public land to raise money for a seminary of higher learning. In 1836, Governor Richard Keith Call appointed a 14-member board to plan for a University of Florida. Very little concrete action materialized from these efforts, however, and Florida became a state in 1845 still lacking a state college of any kind.

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Floridians lamented the state of their educational system. Georgia had had a public university since 1785, while the University of Alabama had been open since 1831. Meanwhile, Florida’s young men and women were obliged to travel outside the state to finish their training, or not receive it at all. In January 1851, the Legislature took action by establishing two seminaries for teacher training, one for each side of the Suwannee River. Beyond this one directive, the act was silent as to where the two schools should be located. The Legislature would have to make that choice once the options were clearer.

Several towns throughout the state took this as their cue to make it very clear why they should be chosen as the site for one of the new seminaries. Several of their petitions to the Legislature have survived and are now part of Record Series 2153 at the State Archives of Florida. In recommending themselves, the petitioners focused on the healthfulness and convenience of their location. Pensacola’s advocates, for example, argued their proximity to the Gulf and points west would attract students from neighboring Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and perhaps even the West Indies. Ocala’s petitioners pointed to their position near the geographic center of the peninsula and the number of stage roads in the area as reasons for the town’s worthiness.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries. Click the image to enlarge it.

The committees writing these petitions realized, however, that it would take more than a few beautiful descriptive phrases to sway the Legislature. To sweeten the deal, they included offers of land, buildings, and even cash to strengthen their case.

East of the Suwannee River, Ocala in Marion County and Newnansville in Alachua County were the main contenders for a seminary. The Ocala petitioners offered to give the state 16 town lots in Ocala valued at $5,000, plus $1,600 cash, as well as the buildings then being used by the East Florida Independent Institute. The Institute had been established in 1852 by a New Englander named Gilbert Dennis Kingsbury, who went by the name S.S. Burton in Florida. Newnansville did not yet possess anything like the East Florida Independent Institute had to offer, but in their petition the citizens of the town pledged $5,000 toward constructing new facilities. The Legislature ultimately selected Ocala as the site for the state seminary east of the Suwannee, which after a series of transformations and a relocation to Gainesville became the University of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 - Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 – Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click image to enlarge and view transcript.

West of the Suwannee, Pensacola and Tallahassee were locked into a similar competition. Pensacola’s citizens promised to provide whatever land was necessary to build a seminary, but Tallahassee went much farther. The mayor and city council pledged to donate $10,000 to the cause, made up partly of $7,000 worth of land and buildings already under construction, plus the remainder in cash. City officials also offered to grant the institution an annuity of $1,500. Citizens of nearby Quincy in Gadsden County chimed in with a similar offer of the buildings used by the Quincy Academy, but the petitioners did not commit any specific amount of cash to the project, let alone an annuity. The Legislature chose Tallahassee as the site for the state seminary west of the Suwannee, which ultimately became the Florida State College for Women and later the Florida State University.

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school's football team was taken in 1899.

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school’s football team was taken in 1899. The team members are sitting on the steps of College Hall, the seminary’s main building, which stood from its construction in 1891 to 1909, when it was replaced by Westcott Hall, which still stands today.

What state institutions are located near your Florida community? Do you know how long they’ve been around, or how they came to exist? The State Library & Archives is home to a wealth of information on this subject – search Florida Memory, the State Library Catalog, and the Archives Online Catalog to learn more.

Governor for a Day

What would you do if you were Governor of Florida for a day? Attend a Cabinet meeting, check in on some state agencies, have a brainstorming session with a few state officials? One Fort Lauderdale youth had the opportunity to do just that back in 1962 during the administration of Governor Farris Bryant. It all started when Rita Mae Brown wrote to the Governor asking if she could shadow him as part of a “Senior Work Day,” in which she and her classmates were to be “hired” by local businesses for a day to learn about various careers.

Governor Farris Bryant at his desk (circa 1960s).

Governor Farris Bryant at his desk (circa 1960s).

Governor Bryant wrote back and said that this would be impossible, not because he didn’t like the idea, but because he would be in Japan at the time Rita proposed to come. Bryant suggested she come to Tallahassee anyway and serve as his stand-in.

And so she did. Rita Brown, 17, packed her bags and took her first airplane ride to Tallahassee that April to take her place as Governor for a day.  She met with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, who took her to the Executive Office of the Governor for a chance to sit at Farris Bryant’s desk and be photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Frank Noel of the Associated Press.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey and high school student Rita Brown in the office of Governor Farris Bryant (1962).

Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey and high school student Rita Brown in the office of Governor Farris Bryant (1962).

Bailey then escorted young Rita to a Cabinet meeting, where she caught up on the latest discussions on stone crab conservation and the fate of Forman Field down in Fort Lauderdale. She toured the Florida Development Commission and the State Road Department, including its “vast array of IBM machines,” as Rita later put it.

Rita’s “term” as Governor of Florida was short, but she made a full report to Governor Farris Bryant after she returned home. We recently found it in Bryant’s administrative correspondence (Series 756), which is held by the State Archives of Florida. Here’s an excerpt (check out that signature line!):

Excerpt from a letter to Governor Farris Bryant by Rita Mae Brown, April 25, 1962, in Box 52, folder 6, Farris Bryant Administrative Correspondence (Series 756, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpt from a letter to Governor Farris Bryant by Rita Mae Brown, April 25, 1962, in Box 52, folder 6, Farris Bryant Administrative Correspondence (Series 756, State Archives of Florida).

Rita took her brief time as Florida’s chief executive quite seriously. In her report, she proposed a program to help keep bright young Floridians in their own state instead of going to look for work and education elsewhere. In his reply, Governor Bryant suggested she contact Superintendent Bailey with her ideas. This she did, outlining what she called her “Sell Florida” campaign:

Excerpts from a letter by Rita Mae Brown to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, July 7, 1962, in Box 4, Thomas D. Bailey Subject Files (Series 1127, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpts from a letter by Rita Mae Brown to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, July 7, 1962, in Box 4, Thomas D. Bailey Subject Files (Series 1127, State Archives of Florida).

Bailey liked the idea, and distributed it to the presidents of Florida’s institutions of higher learning, the Florida Development Commission, and other state agencies. Rita herself went on to become a prominent civil rights activist and later an accomplished Emmy-nominated writer. In a way, you could say that both the State of Florida and Rita herself got a lot out of that one day governorship. Makes you wonder what a little mentoring might do for an eager young person in your own life, doesn’t it?

The State Library & Archives holds the keys to many interesting stories like that of young Rita Mae Brown. We encourage you to explore Florida Memory and browse our catalogs at info.florida.gov to learn more.

 

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.