Remembering the Historic William S. Stevens School

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 26, 2017, Florida lost a piece of its tangible history after the historic Stevens School in Quincy caught fire and burned. Join us as we delve into the Archives for a brief look back at the history of this community fixture which stood near Live Oak and Cooper streets for nearly 90 years.

Stevens High School building in Quincy, Florida, built 1929.

Stevens High School building in Quincy, Florida, built 1929.

Originally known as the Dunbar School, the school first opened to grades 1-12 in the early twentieth century. With funding for black education scarce in the Jim Crow South, the African-American community in Quincy received a contribution from the Rosenwald Fund to build the school. Illinois-based philanthropist and part-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company, Julius Rosenwald, headed the organization. His concentrated largess helped build schools for African-Americans all over the segregated South, including dozens in Florida.

Dunbar High School class portrait, ca. 1928.

Dunbar High School class portrait, ca. 1928.

Dunbar High School football team, ca. 1910.

Dunbar High School football team, ca. 1910.

Dunbar soon caught the attention of the ambitious Dr. William Spencer Stevens, who saw potential in expanding the school. Born in Tallahassee in 1882, Stevens attended Florida State Normal and Industrial College before graduating from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. After medical school, Stevens moved to Quincy where he made history as the first African-American doctor to open his own medical practice in the area. Stevens also operated a community hospital for blacks as well as a drug store.

However, Stevens’ success did not make him immune to the rampant racism pulsing through Quincy. According to civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who grew up in Quincy in the 1940s, whites tied Stevens to a tree after he attempted to register black voters.

Portrait of Dr. William Spencer Stevens, ca. 1906.

Portrait of Dr. William Spencer Stevens, ca. 1906. Stevens served as city school supervisor from 1914 until his death in 1949.

Wedding portrait of Dr. and Mrs. W.S. Stevens. Order unknown, included in the photograph are Mrs. W.S. Stevens, Dr. William Spencer Stevens, Mrs. Maggie Stevens, and Mrs. Maggie Proctor.

Wedding portrait of Dr. and Mrs. W.S. Stevens on February 8, 1910. Order unknown, included in the photograph are Mrs. W.S. Stevens, Dr. William Spencer Stevens, Mrs. Maggie Stevens, and Mrs. Maggie Proctor.

In 1914, the doctor’s good standing in the community earned him the title of Supervisor of the Quincy City Schools. In this role, he sought to enlarge the reach of Dunbar High School and oversaw a four-year improvement project in the late 1920s.  Locals were so pleased with Stevens’ work to install new classrooms and an auditorium in the building, that they voted to change the school’s name in his honor. According to an article printed in the September 19, 1929 edition of the Gadsden County newspaper, the new William Stevens High School building opened with a reported enrollment of 450 students.

Stevens High School faculty, ca. 1940.

Stevens High School faculty, ca. 1940.

Stevens High School continued to serve Quincy’s black students until 1955, when the school board replaced it and moved the students and faculty into the new  Carter-Parramore High School building. In 1970, during a push to integrate segregated schools, the school board shut Carter-Parramore as a secondary school and repurposed it as a middle school.

The original Stevens High School plant most recently housed an African Artifact and Cultural Museum. It was operated by Quincy native and civil rights activist, Priscilla Stephens Kruize. WCTV’s Lanetra Bennett reported that over one million dollars worth of historic material was lost in the blaze. Recently, the Florida Division of Historical Resources had recommended that the historic building receive grant funding for restorations during the upcoming year.

 

Quincy Goes Better with a Coke

Today, Americans remain sharply divided on their soda pop preferences, but in the tiny town of Quincy, Florida, the refreshing bite of Coca-Cola reigns supreme. The so-called “Coca-Cola millionaires,” and their many descendants still living in the community of just around 8,000 people, would not have it any other way.  In the early 20th century, banker,  Mark “Pat” Munroe, secured his fate as a local legend when he bought several shares of Coca-Cola stock soon after the soft drink company went public in 1919. He encouraged others to invest in Coke as well. What might have seemed like a gamble then ultimately paid dividends for Quincy’s original 25 Coca-Cola millionaires. In fact, just before World War II, the town of Quincy boasted the highest per-capita income of any municipality in the country, owed in large part to America’s love affair with Coca-Cola.

The original Coca-Cola millionaire, Pat Munroe (right) with local shade tobacco producer and businessman, E.B. Shelfer, Sr. outside of the Quincy State Bank, ca. 1920.

The original Coca-Cola millionaire, Pat Munroe (right) standing next to local shade tobacco producer, businessman,  and fellow cola investor, E.B. Shelfer, Sr. (left)  outside of the Quincy State Bank, ca. 1920.

Named after John Quincy Adams, white settlers established Quincy as the county seat of Gadsden County, Florida in 1828. Located about twenty miles west of Tallahassee, atop some of Florida’s most fertile soil, Quincy’s economic history is rooted in agricultural production. Shade tobacco, used to wrap cigars, grew exceptionally well in the region’s humid climate and would eventually become the county’s most profitable industry. Prior to the Civil War, plantation owners in the area relied on enslaved labor to cultivate large quantities of not only tobacco, but also cotton, sugarcane, and corn. In the uncertain post-war economy, shade tobacco emerged as Quincy’s staple crop and the town soon became known as the “shade-grown leaf-tobacco capital.”

Tobacco growers stand with newly planted crop under slat-shade house in Quincy, ca. 1900

Tobacco growers stand with newly planted crop under slat-shade house in Quincy, ca. 1900

Tobacco farmers tying up shade tobacco crop in Quincy, Florida, ca. 1960.

Tobacco farmers tying up shade tobacco crop in Quincy, Florida, ca. 1960.

Though the shade tobacco crop certainly had potential to yield high returns, natural factors, like fluctuating soil fertility and capricious weather patterns, posed an investment risk. Enter the sweet stability of Coca-Cola, the best-selling saccharine treat whose production calls for little more than sugar and carbonated water. When Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton first introduced Coke in the 1880s, the brand suffered from lackluster advertising and public skepticism–many consumers thought the product held addictive properties. But fresh marketing techniques turned the company around, and by 1909 Coca-Cola owned an estimated 379 bottling plants in the United States, including one in Quincy.

The first load of bottled Coca-cola in Quincy, ca. 1909.

The first load of bottled Coca-Cola product being hauled away for sale in Quincy, ca. 1909.

Atlanta-based company stakeholder W.C. Bradley sought to expand Coke’s operation, convincing his out-of-state colleague and President of the Quincy State Bank Pat Munroe to invest. In the 1920s, Munroe bought numerous shares of Coke stock for about $40 each and soon watched the values balloon.  He strongly encouraged his friends and customers at the bank to do the same. Munroe’s son-in-law and former State Representative Bob Woodward, Jr. often retold the story of how his father went into the bank for a $2,000 farm loan. Munroe insisted on writing Woodward a $4,000 loan, if he promised to invest half in Coke stock. It paid. “Coca-Cola helped my family survive the depression…. It was like gold to the Quincy State Bank.”  Quincy folklore recalls Munroe as a kind of coke evangelist. “Anyone who went in the door of the Quincy State Bank to borrow a quarter had his arm twisted to buy a nickel’s worth of Coca-Cola stock,” rumored one old-time resident. Those who ignored Munroe’s financial advice sorely regretted it later. After one patron refused the bank president’s suggestion to purchase $5,000 worth of the soda stock in the 1920s, his son lamented to a Florida Times Union  reporter fifty years later that the shares would have hovered around $500,000 in value by 1975.  By one estimate, a single share of Coca-Cola stock purchased  in 1920 would be worth $6.4 million today, all dividends reinvested. Pat Munroe died in 1940, but the impact of his original decision to invest in the soft drink company lived on for decades in Quincy.

View of the Quincy State Bank building on the corner of Washington and Tennessee Avenue in Quincy, ca. 1920. Munroe served as president of the bank until his death in 1940.

View of the Quincy State Bank building, nicknamed “the Coke bank” by locals, on the corner of Washington and Tennessee Avenue in Quincy, ca. 1920. Munroe served as president of the bank from 1892 until his death in 1940.

The philanthropy of some of the Coke millionaires helped to soften the harsh economic impact of the Great Depression and later episodes of economic downturn. In the 1970s, Quincy’s tobacco market dried up after Central and South American countries commandeered the market. As a result, the area suffered from high unemployment and low incomes. Although the Coke millionaires could not single-handedly reboot Quincy’s economy or eliminate systemic poverty, some of them have helped spruce up the city’s appearance over the years. Munroe’s daughter, Julia Woodward, along with other Coke millionaire heirs, Florence Brooks and Marcus and Betty Shelfer, donated a substantial portion of the $150,000 used to restore the Leaf Theater on Washington Street in 1983. Their largess also assisted in the renovations of the Centenary Methodist Church, the addition of the Robert F. Munroe school library, and the partial funding of the Girl Scout Camp on Lake Talquin. Though these cosmetic changes have certainly beautified Quincy, the town lost its claim as the richest small town in America long ago, after all of the original Coke investors passed on and many of their relatives moved away. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent calculations, Gadsden County’s level of per-capita income now ranks 59th out of Florida’s 67 counties. Moreover, Quincy’s poverty rate hovered around 27 percent in 2015, significantly higher than the state average of 15 percent. Despite these sobering economic trends, it is as safe a bet as any that Coca-Cola is still Quincy’s drink of choice.

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.

There Oughta Be a Law!

Whoever said law books are boring clearly hasn’t read many city and town ordinances from the 1800s or early 1900s. Local governments are closest to the people, so naturally the laws they create often regulate the most mundane, common behavior. You can learn a lot about a community and the challenges it faced in a particular time period by studying its local ordinances. In doing the reading, however, you’re likely to find a few that give you a chuckle. Here are a few gems from cities and towns around Florida:

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Civil War Letters Home: Roderick Gospero Shaw

Of all the Civil War documents here at the State Archives, letters from soldiers to their loved ones are some of the most engaging. Many of the young men who signed up for military service at the beginning of the war were eager, confident, and impatient to get into the fray and make a name for themselves.

Roderick Gospero Shaw of Attapulgus, Georgia enlisted at Quincy in April 1861  in the “Young Guards,” a unit of the “old” First Florida Infantry. He served one year in this unit, and later re-enlisted in August 1862 in the 4th Florida Infantry at Chattanooga. The State Archives of Florida holds typewritten transcripts of nearly a dozen of Shaw’s letters to his sister, Mrs. Jesse Shaw Smith, who lived in Quincy for much of the war (Collection M87-6).

Lt. Roderick Gospero Shaw (circa 1861).

Roderick Gospero Shaw (circa 1861).

Shaw’s early letters betray his impatience as a young soldier ready for action. In May 1861, he wrote to his sister Jesse that members of his company were dismayed to be limited mostly to loading wagons with supplies and digging post holes for camp improvements. He was resolved not to share his displeasure with anyone else, however.

“I came for the purpose of making a soldier of myself as long as I was here,” Shaw explains, “and [to] lay off the ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Dandy.’ It is rather hard to do, but I think I act it as well as any of the boys.” Shaw held out hope that his unit would see action soon. “I would not be surprised,” he tells Jesse, “to hear the roaring of cannons any morning instead of the drum for reveille.”

Confederate camp behind Fort Barrancas near Pensacola (April 1861).

Confederate camp behind Fort Barrancas near Pensacola (April 1861).

As the war dragged on, Shaw began sharing sentiments so many soldiers on both sides felt – weariness with camp life and the desire to see loved ones back home. In a May 1863 letter to Jesse, Shaw describes the bland contents of the average soldier’s diet while campaigning.

“Meal after meal we sit to cornbread (once in a while a little flour), bacon and water,” he laments. “We consider ourselves fortunate if perchance we obtain a quart of buttermilk occasionally for 50 cents. I had the pleasure yesterday of partaking of a ham of mutton at dinner. Butter cannot be procured anywhere.”

Shaw’s letters often speak of his wanting to come home on furlough, but he resolves to do his duty as a loyal soldier and stay with the Army.

“I wish I could be at home with you,” he tells Jesse in December 1862, “but it is impossible. My country needs my services and, til peace is declared, I expect to remain with the Army.”

“On Picket,” an etching by “H.B. McLellan of Company A” (1860s).

Shaw was not only eager to remain with the Army, but also to move up in the ranks. In several letters, he explains to Jesse that he has been studying military tactics and taking on leadership roles in his company so as to support his application for an officer’s position. He asks often for cloth or ready-made clothing so as to improve his appearance and distinguish himself. After achieving the rank of sergeant major, Shaw muses to Jesse in one letter about having a horse and assistant to accompany him.

“Should I ever get home, I will expect to live more at ease on my return to camp. The first thing I will want is a boy to cook for me and attend to other little necessaries. As it is it costs more to live in camp than at home, and much more troublesome. […] I wrote to Uncle Tom about buying a horse, but there is a question as to whether the promoted major is entitled to it or not…” (R.G. Shaw to Jesse Shaw Smith, Nov. 5, 1861).

Shaw received the promotion he had so earnestly hoped for in October 1863. He was transferred to Company E, 4th Florida Infantry, and made a 2nd Lieutenant.

“I do not feel very proud of it yet as I think I have no right to it for skill and valor,” he tells Jesse in January 1864, “but by Summer I will either deserve it or the brand of coward.”

Shaw’s words proved to be prophetic. General William Tecumseh Sherman took command of the Union’s western forces in March 1864, and began preparing to march southward toward Atlanta.

“This Spring will be the most important period of the war,” Shaw writes in one letter sent just before Sherman took command. “It will prove the point of culmination. The mighty hosts of the invader will be driven back or Rebellion will tremble.”

Shaw would lose his life in the Confederate attempt to halt Sherman’s advance. On May 27, 1864, he began a letter to his Uncle Thomas Smith in Attapulgus, Georgia, which he never finished. His last written words were: “I leave now for a skirmish myself for 24 hours. Goodbye until tomorrow evening.”

Tomorrow evening did not come for Lt. Roderick Gospero Shaw. A letter to his uncle from one of his comrades reported that he had been killed in a skirmish near Dallas, Georgia. With the weather warm and no means available to transport the body quickly to any cemetery, he was laid to rest not far from the road between Dallas and Marietta. Shaw had just turned 21.

Confederate graves in the Old City Cemetery at Tallahassee (photo 1967).

Confederate graves in the Old City Cemetery at Tallahassee (photo 1967).

Stories such as Lieutenant Shaw’s abound in the many letters, diaries, reports, and other materials available at the State Archives of Florida. For more information, check out our Guide to Civil War Records, and visit us to see what materials may be available to help you research the Civil War soldiers in your family tree.

Also, don’t forget about our featured program for October, Civil War Voices from Florida. Each day in October 2014, Florida Memory will post a letter or diary entry written exactly 150 years ago in October 1864.