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.

 

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.