Higher Learning in the Panhandle

When you think about major colleges and universities in Florida, where does your mind travel? Gainesville? Tallahassee? Miami? Pensacola? These days, higher education can be found in every corner of the state, but you may be surprised to learn that in the 1910s, 20s, and early 30s one of the liveliest institutions in North Florida was located in the Panhandle in De Funiak Springs. It was called Palmer College and Academy.

McIlwain Hall at Palmer College (circa 1915).

McIlwain Hall at Palmer College (circa 1915).

Palmer wasn’t the first institution of higher learning in DeFuniak Springs. Florida’s state normal school for white students was located there from its founding in 1887 to 1905, when the state’s institutions of higher learning were reorganized under the Buckman Act. This was the same act that created the University of Florida (initially known as the University of the State of Florida) and the Florida State College for Women.

With the normal school gone, leaders in De Funiak began wondering what they might do to replace it. The pastor of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. F.L. Higdon, recommended the town act fast to find a way to use the property before the state decided to dispose of it. He envisioned a religious school that would include both the high school grades plus colleagiate work. With the aid of Presbyterians around the region, Palmer College soon emerged. It was named for Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a Presbyterian leader in New Orleans.

Women's basketball team at Palmer College (1913).

Women’s basketball team at Palmer College (1913).

Palmer advertised itself as a place for both local youth and the children of Northerners who wished to “shield their children from the rigors of a Northern climate.” As of 1913, tuition for both the Academy (the high school section) and the College was $30.00 per semester. Room and board in the dormitories was $54.00 per semester. Piano, voice, elocution, or art instruction could be tacked on for an additional $24.00 per semester. Books and laundry were extra, and students were responsible for bringing their own linens.

Palmer’s curriculum included all the basics, including English, math, biology, history. The college also offered Greek, German, French, and Latin. All students participated in chapel services, and Bible study was part of the normal student schedule.

Palmer College students on a picnic (1915 or 1916).

Palmer College students on a picnic (1915 or 1916).

Our favorite State Library resources on Palmer College are the yearbooks. The students wrote much of the material, which allows the readers a window into what it was like to be a young student in the 1910s and 20s. The components of the yearbooks aren’t so different from today, but the humor certainly is. Take, for example, these entries from the “Senior Class Will” of the Class of 1925:

“To the Sophomore Class we bequeath our knowledge of Geometry with our grades; some may need them.”

“I, Ethel Penton, bequeath to Edna Singletary my privilege of town days, hoping that she is as lucky with results as I have been.” (Permission to leave the college grounds was strictly controlled.)

I, Dan Hughes, bequeath to Melville Jennings and Pug Wilson, my good looks, hoping that it is equally divided.”

The yearbooks also report on the students’ social activities. Parties were common, but they were generally formal affairs given either by local community groups or by student organizations like the “Wallace Bruce Literary Society.” Marshmallow roasts, picnics, and occasional excursions by automobile were favorite outings. Some of the games the students played during these activities included “King William,” “Follow the Leader,” “Post Office,” and “Bunco.”

Cover of the 1925 Palmera yearbook for Palmer College, part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Cover of the 1925 Palmera yearbook for Palmer College, part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Palmer College closed its doors after the 1935-36 academic year, but its history remains preserved in the yearbooks and other print materials produced by the school. Palmer is just one of the many schools for which these items have made it into the State Library & Archives of Florida. Search the library catalog to see if we have resources for learning more about a historic Florida institution near you.

Pulling a University Out of a Hat

Most folks know a little something about the name Stetson. Many recognize the name as belonging to a particular style of hat. Many Floridians are also aware of Stetson University, one of the state’s premier institutions of higher learning. But how are these things connected? To answer that question, we need to take a look at the early history of DeLand, Florida.

A very busy Rand McNally map showing DeLand and the surrounding area (1882). From the Florida Map Collection of the State Library of Florida.

A very busy Rand McNally map showing DeLand and the surrounding area (1882). From the Florida Map Collection of the State Library of Florida.

The settlement went by the name “Persimmon Hollow” for a number of years, owing to the large number of persimmon trees that grew wild in the area. In March 1876, baking powder manufacturer Henry Addison DeLand of New York and his brother-in-law O.P. Terry, traveled south to visit this as-yet undeveloped piece of Florida. Terry had bought up acreage around Persimmon Hollow to start an orange grove.

DeLand was impressed with what he saw. The only way to easily reach Persimmon Hollow at that time was by steamboat, but that could be changed. The terrain, he believed, was highly favorable for agriculture. DeLand and Terry set out to build up a large citrus growing operation, with a new town as the center of activity.

Plan of the new Town of DeLand, drawn up by D.D. Rogers in 1883. The map shown is a reproduction of the original, now in the possession of the State Library of Florida.

Plan of the new Town of DeLand, drawn up by D.D. Rogers in 1883. The map shown is a reproduction of the original, now in the possession of the State Library of Florida.

DeLand returned to Persimmon Hollow in October 1876, ready to get to work. Area residents voted in December to name the new town “DeLand” in his honor. A post office was established in 1877, and the town was officially incorporated in 1882.

Group portrait at the DeLand family home in DeLand. Standing third from the left is Henry A. DeLand. His wife Helen DeLand is standing third from the right (photo circa 1880s).

Group portrait at the DeLand family home in DeLand. Standing third from the left is Henry A. DeLand. His wife Helen DeLand is standing third from the right (photo circa 1880s).

Henry DeLand’s vision for the town revolved around the citrus industry, but he also gave considerable attention to education and culture. In 1884, he contributed $10,000 to construct DeLand Academy, which was chartered in 1887 by the Legislature as DeLand University. DeLand and the original trustees hoped the school would put their town on the map as “the Athens of Florida,” a real nucleus of higher education in the state.

DeLand Hall, the first academic building at DeLand University, which later became Stetson University (photo circa 1885).

DeLand Hall, the first academic building at DeLand University, which later became Stetson University (photo circa 1885).

DeLand faithfully supported his namesake university, providing equipment and extra money to cover its deficits. DeLand’s own finances, however, took a turn for the worse in 1886. That year, Florida suffered a serious freeze that destroyed much of the orange crop in the area around DeLand and Volusia County. Henry DeLand had always told the people who purchased land from him that he would buy the land back if they were unsatisfied with it. After the freeze, a number of orange growers asked DeLand to make good on his offer and, true to his word, he did.

This, of course, was a detrimental blow to DeLand’s personal fortune, and he was essentially ruined. Rather than start over in Florida, Henry DeLand returned to New York and resumed his earlier career as a baking powder manufacturer.

Meanwhile, DeLand University needed a benefactor. That’s where John B. Stetson enters the story. Stetson, who had created a very large and successful hat business in Philadelphia by this time, had spent time in Central Florida and became acquainted with John F. Forbes, president of DeLand University. Stetson contributed a significant amount of funding to the school, and was a founding member of the Board of Trustees. In 1889 he became president of the board.

John Batterson Stetson, founding trustee and major donor to DeLand (later Stetson) University (photo circa 1900 - not taken after 1906).

John Batterson Stetson, founding trustee and major donor to DeLand (later Stetson) University (photo circa 1900 – not taken after 1906).

The Trustees began thinking of renaming the university in honor of its sustaining donor. Stetson declined the honor at first, arguing that Henry DeLand’s contributions in founding the school and nurturing it in its early years earned him the honor. The Trustees insisted, however, and so the school became known as the John B. Stetson University from 1889 onward. Since 1951, “Stetson University” has been the official title for most purposes.

Another nod to Stetson’s influence can be found in its athletic teams, which are known as the “Hatters.”

You can find a wealth of images relating to the history of Florida’s institutions of higher learning on Florida Memory. Visit the Florida Photographic Collection and search for your favorite school!

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 a lawsuit against the Florida Board of Control in 1950. His legal battle would carry on for nine years, laying the foundation for integrating graduate and professional schools in Florida.

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.