A Brush with the Black Death

If you thought bubonic plague only caused epidemics in medieval Europe, think again! Pensacola experienced an outbreak of the infamous disease in 1920 that resulted in at least seven deaths. The episode turned out to be a transitional moment for public health in the city, as local, state and federal officials took action to prevent future attacks.

A schooner loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor, ca. 1900. Ships like this one may have been the source of the rats (and fleas) that transmitted the bubonic plague to humans during the outbreak of 1920.

A schooner loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor, ca. 1900. Ships like this one may have been the source of the rats (and fleas) that transmitted the bubonic plague to humans during the outbreak of 1920.

Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, typically spread by infected fleas on small rodents like mice or rats. Vaccines don’t do much to prevent the plague, but it responds well to several kinds of antibiotics. Unfortunately, those medicines were not around in the 14th century when the bubonic plague struck Europe, resulting in the deaths of somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the population. The term “Black Death” is often used to describe this European outbreak, likely a reference to the dark lesions infected patients would develop under the skin as a result of internal bleeding. In reality, people at that time usually called the epidemic the “Big Death” or “Great Mortality.” After a series of later historians continued to use “Black Death” instead, however, the name stuck.

Bites from fleas like this one are typically responsible for transmitting the bubonic plague to humans.

Bites from fleas like this one are typically responsible for transmitting the bubonic plague to humans. Image courtesy of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The bubonic plague didn’t die with the Middle Ages. Outbreaks have occurred in every century since the Black Death, including as recently as 2017 in Madagascar. The plague outbreak in Pensacola was discovered by local physician Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans in June 1920 when one of his patients became very suddenly ill and delirious with fever. When the patient also developed a telltale “bubo” (a swollen and darkened gland infected by plague bacteria) near his groin, Bryans suspected something unusual and contacted the state bacteriologist, Dr. Fritz Albert Brink. After personally examining the patient, Brink quickly diagnosed the disease as the bubonic plague.

The World War I service card of Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans, the physician who first sounded the alarm in the Pensacola outbreak of plague in 1920.

The World War I service card of Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans, the physician who first sounded the alarm in the Pensacola outbreak of plague in 1920. Dr. Bryans served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was briefly on detached duty with the British Royal Army Medical Corps in England, Belgium and France. Click to enlarge the image.

To verify his suspicions, Brink took samples from the bubo, which he then injected into two guinea pigs. He also prepared slides to view under a microscope. All tests confirmed his original diagnosis. The guinea pigs quickly developed symptoms of plague and died, and the slides revealed bacteria consistent with Yersinia pestis. 

To stop the disease from spreading further, its source needed to be identified quickly. Bryans’ patient had not left Pensacola or been aboard a ship anytime recently, which ruled out the possibility that he had brought the disease into the city from someplace else. Still, several more cases appeared in June 1920. Since the modern bubonic plague generally cannot spread from person to person, this meant the source of infection had to be the fleas infesting local rodents.

Public health officials blamed rodents like this rat for harboring the fleas that transmitted the plague bacteria to humans.

Public health officials blamed rodents like this rat for harboring the fleas that transmitted the plague bacteria to humans.

Florida’s State Board of Health sprung into action, with support from the U.S. Public Health Service. The state officials already had a laboratory in Pensacola at the corner of Palafox and Cervantes streets, which became the control center for the eradication effort. Federal health authorities also brought in Hamilton, a mobile laboratory train car, to assist. The human plague victims were isolated and those who consented were treated with serum. Out of 10 total cases, seven victims died.

Flyer urging Pensacola citizens to cooperate with public health officials to help end the bubonic plague outbreak (1920).

Flier urging Pensacola citizens to cooperate with public health officials to help end the bubonic plague outbreak (1920). Box 1, Folder 22, Florida Health Notes Photographs (Series 917).

Meanwhile, city, state and federal authorities launched an all-out effort to eradicate the rodents responsible for harboring the infected fleas. The public health experts captured, examined and disposed of over 35,000 rats and mice from June 1920 to July 1921, carefully studying the fleas that came with them. The program’s final report gives 211 as the largest number of fleas found on a single rat, although the average was closer to about 10. City officials encouraged the public to do their share by trapping rats, covering them in oil to kill the fleas and turning them in to the public health experts for processing.

Map showing the locations of rats and humans found to be infected with bubonic plague bacteria. Both categories of infected cases are numbered in order of their discovery.

Map showing the locations of rats and humans found to be infected with bubonic plague bacteria. Both categories of infected cases are numbered in order of their discovery. Box 1, Folder 9, State Board of Health Subject Files (Series 900).

Wherever rats infected with plague bacteria were found, a team followed behind to clean up whatever conditions had made the property attractive to them. The eradication program ultimately used 1,228 pounds of cyanide and 1,854 pints of sulphuric acid to fumigate buildings. The team also demolished seven houses and hauled 280 truckloads of trash and debris to the city dumps. The city government did its part to prevent future rodent infestations by passing new ordinances requiring business owners and residents to ratproof their buildings. Plank sidewalks, which offered rats and mice a convenient space to live, were outlawed and replaced with stone, brick or concrete. Under the new laws, incoming ships had to attach rat shields to their mooring lines, and ramps and gangplanks leading from the ship to the wharf had to be taken up when not in use.

Pensacola’s brush with the bubonic plague was brief, but it still cost the city seven lives. Local citizens took the matter seriously, however, and acted quickly in ways that ultimately made Pensacola a safer, healthier place to live and work.

If you enjoyed reading about this episode in the history of Florida’s public health, check out our online exhibit, Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence: Early Florida Medicine.

Sources:

John Kelly. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

 

 

How’s Your Head, Governor Drew?

Can you guess which Florida governor weighed 185 pounds, had a brain 23¼ inches in diameter and was reportedly an uncommonly good judge of character? Stumped? To be fair, we wouldn’t have known either, had he not taken the time to consult a phrenologist while visiting New York in 1867. We recently came across the phrenologist’s report in this governor’s family papers and made it available on Florida Memory.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City. Click the image to view the entire report.

Phrenology was a pseudo-science popular mainly in the early 19th century. Its founders, German physicians Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, claimed it was possible to determine the size and mental capacity of a person’s brain based on the bumps and indentations on the outside of the head. Phrenologists, who soon popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, would take measurements of a person’s head, note the places where it seemed to either be bulging or denting, and then write a report explaining the person’s character. The assumption was that every area of the brain covered a different aspect of personality and behavior. The more brain matter you had in a particular region, the more pronounced the corresponding trait would be.

Diagram illustrating the various

Diagram illustrating the various “faculties” of the brain, according to phrenologists.

Now a bit about Governor Drew. George Franklin Drew was born August 6, 1827, in New Hampshire, and got his start as a machinist’s apprentice in Massachusetts. At the age of 20, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, and started up his own machine shop before turning to the lumber industry. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Drew opposed secession, which didn’t sit well with some of his neighbors, and he spent most of the war confined in Savannah.

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida's 12th state governor (1877-1881).

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida’s 12th state governor (1877-1881).

After the war, Drew originally intended to move with his family to Brazil, but he only made it as far south as Suwannee County, Florida, where he invested his remaining fortune in timber land and a sawmill. He later moved his operation to Ellaville in Madison County, and built what was then believed to be the largest sawmill in the South.

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

It was during this era of his life that Drew visited New York City, probably on business, and happened to stop by the Fowler and Wells Phrenological Cabinet, a museum with plaster casts of heads and skulls and all kinds of memorabilia associated with the phrenology movement. While there, he received a full phrenological workup from Nelson Sizer, professor of “mental science” in the American Phrenological Institute and associate editor of the American Phrenological Journal. Sizer’s report on Drew was lengthy, but here are a few of the characteristics he “discovered” in the future governor while examining his head:

  • He was a good judge of character.
  • He appreciated people of principle and expected others to practice what they preached.
  • He liked to eat. Sizer wrote, “You have a strong appetite, which should be regulated.”
  • He was eager to be respected.

Sizer also offered Drew some advice, mainly regarding his diet:

  • Avoid pork and pastry and “highly seasoned things.”
  • Don’t use tobacco.
  • Eat lean beef and tart fruits and cut down on butter and sugar.

Sizer’s report was vague, but his overall positive view of Drew’s talent for business and management seemed to ring true. Drew’s lumber operations continued to grow, and he expanded into railroads and the mercantile trade as well. In 1870, he became chairman of the Madison County Commission, and in 1876 Florida’s Democratic Party nominated him for governor. The election results were close in both the presidential and gubernatorial elections that year. The initial returns gave the governorship of Florida to the incumbent, Marcellus Stearns, but a Supreme Court-mandated recount revealed George Franklin Drew as the winner. Drew served one term as governor, the first Democrat to hold that office since Florida had been readmitted to the Union after the Civil War. His administration effectively ended Reconstruction in Florida, and no Republican would again occupy the governor’s mansion until Claude Kirk took office in 1967.

Governor Drew's signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Governor Drew’s signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Shortly after returning to private life, Drew sold off his lumbering interests and moved to Jacksonville, where he spent the remainder of his days. On September 24, 1900, Drew’s wife Amelia experienced a stroke, which the former governor described in a letter to their daughter Vannie. “We have lived together so many years,” he wrote, “that I don’t care to live after she is taken away.” Drew meant what he said. Two hours after Amelia died on September 26th, Governor Drew himself collapsed and died. The local newspaper diagnosed the cause as simply a broken heart.

Governor George Franklin Drew's final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900. Drew Family Papers (M82-8), State Archives of Florida.

Governor George Franklin Drew’s final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900.

Looking for more information about Florida’s governors? Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection or Selected Documents!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Florida

April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a towering figure in the history of civil rights activism. Florida Governor Rick Scott directed the flags on public buildings throughout the state to be flown at half-mast, and proclaimed the day as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50th Anniversary Remembrance Day.

Reactions to Dr. King’s killing in 1968 were swift and widespread, as his many followers took to the streets to vent their frustration over the loss of such a powerful force for peaceful change. For many civil rights activists in Florida, this loss was personal. King had not only inspired them but in some cases had directly supported or even personally participated in their mission to banish segregation from the Sunshine State.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca. 1960s)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (ca. 1960s)

One example of this is the notice Dr. King took of a group of African-American students who were jailed in 1960 for staging a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee. Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, students at Florida A&M University and founders of the Tallahassee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were instrumental in organizing the protests and were among the students arrested. They were charged with civil disobedience and ordered to pay a $300 fine or spend 60 days in jail. Eight students, including the Stephens sisters, chose to go to jail rather than pay the fine, underscoring their assertion that their cause was just.

This “jail-in” attracted significant media attention, and supportive letters and telegrams began arriving from across the nation, including a telegram from Dr. King. Using local Tallahassee civil rights activist Rev. C.K. Steele as an intermediary, Dr. King urged the students to “remember that unearned suffering is redemptive. Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity.” Here is the complete message, one of many digitized as part of the Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers on Florida Memory:

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a “sit-in” at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960.

Dr. King was more directly involved in a series of protests in mid-1964 in St. Augustine, which was then preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. Racial unrest had been on the upswing for over a year, stemming from ongoing segregation in the city, and especially from local officials’ near-complete exclusion of African-Americans from the celebration planning process. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began directly supporting local civil rights activists in St. Augustine in the spring of 1964, with Dr. King himself arriving in May to rally the protesters. He was arrested on June 11 along with fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy when the two men requested service at a segregated restaurant. King was subsequently moved to the Duval County jail, where he reportedly said to one African-American employee, “Hello, sister. I’ve been in fifteen jails, but this is the first time that I have been treated like a hog.” King was eventually released, but he was arrested at least twice more that same month during his stay in St. Augustine. The protests King and the SCLC helped organize were not in vain. The episode helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was before Congress at that moment, and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

St. Augustine’s arrest records for June 30, 1964. The entry for Dr. King’s arrest is located near the bottom of the page.

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, reactions in Florida ranged from quiet memorials to passionate demonstrations and rioting. Local and state officials acted quickly to restore the peace, but they also gave a nod of respect to King’s fervent belief in the power of peaceful protest. Governor Claude Kirk issued a statement directing the flags on public buildings in Florida to be flown at half-mast for two days to honor the passing of both Dr. King and a Tallahassee man who died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store during tense demonstrations the day before. “Every Floridian has a choice,” Kirk wrote. “It is whether to turn to the advocates of violence and insurrection for leadership, or to renew our commitment to equal opportunity and racial justice through peaceful means.”

News release from Governor Kirk asking Floridians to display flags at half-mast from April 5-7, 1968, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s legacy extends far beyond the annual celebration of his birthday in January or the many streets and highways named in his honor. For Floridians, including both veterans of the civil rights movement and young people just now learning about its history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still stands out as an example of tireless leadership and determination to fulfill the promise of equality and freedom for all Americans.

Roxcy Bolton: A Force for Equality

Florida feminist Roxcy Bolton spent her life advocating for women’s rights in the state and around the country. A long-time Coral Gables resident, Bolton is credited with gaining access for women to the previously all-male lunchrooms at Burdines and Jordan Marsh department stores; for helping to end the practice of naming hurricanes only for women; and for opening the influential Tiger Bay political club to women. Today, we’re taking a look at the Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers (M94-1) for a glimpse of Bolton’s efforts to promote women’s rights.

Portrait of Roxcy Bolton in the 1960s.

Roxcy Bolton was born Roxcy O’Neal in 1926 to a Mississippi pioneer family. Bolton became actively involved in community issues and in Democratic Party organizations in the 1950s. She was profoundly affected by Eleanor Roosevelt’s address at the 1956 Democratic National Convention and was motivated to action by the contrast between what women were obviously capable of accomplishing and the fact that “all the men were making the decisions.” Shortly thereafter, Bolton began her women’s rights activism when she spoke before a Democratic women’s group in Fort Lauderdale to advocate equal pay for equal work.

In 1960, Roxcy O’Neal married Commander David Bolton, a U.S. Navy lawyer. They lived for a time in Japan and in Charleston, South Carolina. Upon David Bolton’s retirement from the Navy in 1964, they moved to Coral Gables, where they raised their three children, David B., Bonnie D., and Buddy Bolton.

Florida Parades for the Equal Rights Amendment pamphlet signed by feminist Betty Friedan. The event was presented by the National Organization for Women of Florida, April 14, 1975. Roxcy Bolton was a speaker at the event.

Bolton was one of the first Florida women to join the National Organization for Women (NOW) after its founding in 1966, and she served as national vice president after being elected to the board of directors in 1968. She also founded and served as the first president of the Miami-Dade Chapter of NOW in 1968. Bolton took NOW’s message to county commissioners, town councils and university presidents, arguing the case for equal rights for women and actively campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She convinced U.S. Senator Birch Bayh to hold the first hearings on the ERA before Congress in 1970.

In 1972, Bolton was the driving force behind the designation of August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The proclamation by President Richard Nixon establishing the day was later presented to Bolton in recognition of her diligent work for equal rights. In the video below, Bolton describes her effort to establish Women’s Equality Day:

That same year, after years of personally assisting women in need of clothing, guidance through the legal system, or a sympathetic ear, Bolton founded an organization called Women in Distress. Now operated by the Salvation Army, Women in Distress provides temporary lodging, legal assistance, counseling and caring support to battered women, those with substance abuse problems and other women in personal crisis. (Read more in our blog Roxcy Bolton: Advocate for Women in Crisis.)

In another pioneering effort, Bolton initiated the Rehabilitation Program for Young Prostitutes in the Miami-Dade County area, which offered educational opportunities to incarcerated prostitutes and attempted to keep young women off the streets and away from drugs.

Letter from Florida Attorney General Robert L. Shevin to Roxcy Bolton concerning the revamping of Florida’s rape statute to establish degrees of rape, June 5, 1974.

Bolton worked to establish Commissions on the Status of Women in state government and in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, fought for increased numbers of women in policy-making positions, pushed for the creation of the Women’s Institute at Florida Atlantic University and led a sit-in at the University of Miami protesting the unequal treatment of female students and faculty.

She also led the effort to create yet another first for Florida and the nation; Women’s Park was established in Miami-Dade County in 1992 as a tribute to past and present women leaders in South Florida.

Women’s Rights Day proclamation signed by President Richard Nixon that was presented to Roxcy Bolton by U.S. Senator Edward J. Gurney. President Nixon designated August 26, 1972, as Women’s Rights Day.

Roxcy O’Neal Bolton never wavered in her struggle for equal rights. Her many years of pioneering equal rights activism earned her numerous awards, including her 1984 induction into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.

Bolton died in Coral Gables on May 17, 2017, at the age of 90.

You can view more records from the Roxcy Bolton Papers collection on Florida Memory.

See more documents below:

Senate Memorial No. 1452 presented to Roxcy Bolton by Senator Edmond J. Gong, 1970.

Letter from Senator Edward Gurney to Roxcy Bolton, 1971.

Letter from Senator Edward Gurney to Roxcy Bolton, 1972.

Draft of testimony written by Roxcy Bolton in support of the Equal Rights Amendment given to the Select Committee on the Equal Rights Amendment, 1973.

Letter from vice president and publicity director of Burdine’s to Roxcy Bolton, 1969.

Letter from Estelle J.M. Greene to Roxcy Bolton, 1972.

Letter from Thomas V. Zemsta to Roxcy Bolton, 1971.

Letter from Roxcy Bolton to Thomas V. Zemsta of the Playboy Plaza Hotel, 1971.

Handwritten letter from Roxcy Bolton to Thomas V. Zemsta of the Playboy Plaza Hotel, 1971.

Letter from staff assistant to President George T. Bell to Roxcy Bolton, June 9, 1970.

Letter from staff assistant to President George T. Bell to Roxcy Bolton, June 5, 1970.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

In the summer of 1959, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the Miami Interracial Action Institute and taught attendees principles of non-violent direct action to combat inequality in the South. Two attendees, sisters Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, took these principles with them when they returned to Tallahassee for school and formed the Tallahassee chapter of CORE. Using tactics they learned at the CORE workshop, the Stephens sisters held their first sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee on February 13, 1960, and a second sit-in at the same lunch counter a week later, which led to the arrest of the sisters and a group of other students. Rather than pay their fines, eight students opted for jail time, effectively launching the first jail-in of the civil rights movement.

The eight jailed students and CORE were suddenly thrown into the national spotlight. CORE used the opportunity to draw attention to their organization. What were CORE’s principles, and how could people join the growing civil rights movement through CORE? Using records from the Patricia Stephens Due Papers (N2015-1), we take a look at the materials CORE published and how young activists in Florida, including the Stephens sisters, used CORE as the foundation for fighting racial discrimination.

Participants in the CORE Miami Interracial Action Institute in 1959 at the Sir John Hotel. Seated, left to right: Mrs. Shirley Zoloth, Patricia Stephens (later Due), person unknown, Vera Williams and Priscilla Stephens (later Kruize). Standing, left to right: Jim Dewar, Zev Aelony, person unknown, James T. McCain and Gordon Carey.

CORE formed its Miami chapter in 1959 and the Tallahassee chapter emerged soon after. By the time the organization made its way to Florida, CORE had been active in the United States for nearly two decades. Started in 1942 by pacifist students at the University of Chicago, CORE’s members wanted to use Gandhian techniques of non-violent direct action to improve race relations in the United States. CORE grew out of another pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which was started during World War II with a focus on non-violent direct action for social justice. The first course of action for CORE was to counter the discriminatory housing market in the Chicago area, but their activism quickly grew to a national scale when CORE members decided to target bus segregation in the South.

A pamphlet about CORE’s principles of non-violent direct action which includes 13 rules for action, ca. 1957.

In April 1947, 16 male CORE and FOR members began a project called the “Journey of Reconciliation” through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to test integration on interstate buses. The eight black and eight white activists were responding to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), which ruled segregation in interstate bus travel unconstitutional. With the law on their side, the 16 men rode buses and trains across these Southern states. Some were arrested, but others were able to ride public transportation without any attention. When a rider was confronted, he would use the non-violent tactics he had learned and cite the Supreme Court decision. Although this protest against bus segregation received little national press coverage at the time and resulted in almost no changes to discriminatory policies, it paved the way for the Freedom Rides in 1961.

A CORE flier encouraging people to boycott Shell’s City in Miami for refusing to serve African-Americans at its lunch counter, ca. 1960.

In the mid-1950s, CORE slowly began to establish chapters throughout the country. After the first all-white school in Miami was integrated in 1959, CORE headed to this southern city and started a chapter. CORE then decided to host the Interracial Action Institute, which the Stephens sisters and 10 others from all over the U.S. attended. One of the purposes of the institute was to train participants to use non-violent direct action “as a weapon to advance integration.” Since CORE couldn’t be everywhere at once, their goal was to train people locally so they could then use CORE tactics in their communities. At the institute, participants went through intensive training by role-playing different scenarios they might encounter while holding their demonstrations and were taught how to respond. Participants then put theory into practice, leading a voter registration drive by going door to door in black communities and holding lunch counters sit-ins to challenge discriminatory policies under the guidance of CORE leaders. When the workshop was over, participants went back to their homes to carry on the fight for equality.

Leaflet with guidelines for how to carry out CORE pickets, February 26, 1960.

The Stephens sisters returned to Tallahassee for the fall semester at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) ready to challenge discrimination in the capital city. They quickly formed a CORE chapter in Tallahassee and began documenting instances of discriminatory policies. The February 1, 1960, lunch counter demonstration at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, laid the groundwork for sit-ins across the South. Inspired by the non-violent direct action demonstration of the four students in Greensboro, national CORE asked local chapters to hold sympathy demonstrations in their communities. Ten students, including the Stephens sisters, participated in a sympathy sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee on February 13. The students ordered slices of cake and were refused service. During their two hours at the lunch counter, the students were derided by onlookers, but they remained faithful to their CORE training and didn’t engage with the crowd. When Woolworth’s management closed the counter, the students went home.

CORE members holding a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 13, 1960. Patricia Stephens is wearing dark glasses and Henry Steele Jr. sits closest to the camera.

After this first sit-in, Tallahassee CORE planned another for the following Saturday. On February 20, a group of 17 demonstrators made their way to the Woolworth’s lunch counter and ordered food. Most of the group was composed of FAMU students, but there were also high school students participating. A large group surrounded the demonstrators and told them to move from their seats. Seven of them did leave, but the 11 remaining demonstrators were arrested by police. At their trial, they were charged with disturbing the peace. All of them were found guilty and given the option to pay a $300 fine or spend 60 days in jail. Eight students, including the Stephens sisters, refused to pay the fine. Rather than pay, they chose to hold the first jail-in of the civil rights movement. As a result, CORE and its principles of non-violent direct action were placed in the national spotlight, and people from all over the country wrote to the jailed students to offer support for their demonstrations. When the students were released from jail after serving 49 days, they persistently pursued racial equality in the United States.

A booklet published by CORE consisting of six stories written by young people involved with sit-ins and other non-violent demonstrations across the United States, May 1960. Patricia Stephens  tells her story from jail where she was serving her 60-day sentence with seven other activists, including her sister, Priscilla. Patricia writes about the events leading up to being jailed and the conditions at the Leon County Jail in Tallahassee. The other five stories were written by Edward Rodman (Portsmouth, Virginia), Paul Laprad (Nashville, Tennessee), Thomas Gaither (Orangeburg, South Carolina), Major Johns (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and Martin Smolin (activities in the North).

Activists continued to use the principles of CORE throughout the civil rights movement. Financial problems and internal disputes, which plagued CORE from the beginning, led to the collapse of many local chapters by the mid-1960s. Now CORE is remembered as one of the leading organizations during the fight for civil rights and as the catalyst for civil rights activities in Florida.

You can learn more about the Tallahassee jail-in in our online collection, Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers, 1960.

Resources

Catsam, Derek Charles. Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

Due, Tananarive, and Patricia Stephens Due. Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513-2008. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Mohl, Raymond A. South of the South: Jewish Activists and the Civil Rights Movement in Miami, 1945-1960. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Ernest “Boots” Thomas: Florida’s Unsung Hero

On the morning of February 23, 1945, a group of brave Marines, surrounded by enemy fire, made their way to the top of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, Japan, in the midst of a battle for the island. After nearly four days of fighting, six Marines planted a flag atop the 550-foot summit as a symbol of hope and endurance to encourage their brothers in arms to keep fighting. This event preceded a second flag raising four hours later in the same spot that was immortalized in a photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.

A sculpture of the second flag raising on Iwo Jima inspired by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph. The sculpture was located at Cape Coral Gardens in Cape Coral, Florida, until it was moved to Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve.

Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery photographed the first flag raising on the morning of February 23. These six infantrymen were from the 3rd Platoon, Company E, Second Battalion, 28th Marines, Fifth Marine Division. One of the men on the summit was Platoon Sergeant Ernest Ivy “Boots” Thomas Jr. who grew up in the small city of Monticello in the Florida Panhandle. Just shy of his 21st birthday, this young platoon sergeant bravely led his men up the summit that morning to help plant the flag and was then immediately whisked away to report the event to the press. A second flag was raised because it was decided that the first flag wasn’t large enough for all American forces to see.

Photograph taken by Louis Lowery of the first flag raising on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945. Platoon Sergeant Thomas stands on the mound with his rifle and faces the camera. Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, Sergeant Henry Hansen, 1st Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier and Private Philip L. Ward are also in the photograph.

Born in Tampa to Ernest and Martha Thomas, “Boots,” as some of his friends called him, graduated from Monticello High School and attended Tri-State College in Angola, Indiana, for one year. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. After basic training, Thomas stayed to work as a drill instructor but continued to request combat duty. In 1944, he was sent overseas, and his first and only combat experience was on Iwo Jima. On February 21, two days after landing on Iwo Jima, Thomas’s platoon commander was wounded in action. Under enemy fire, Thomas assumed command and continued the assault. His men were successful in defeating the enemy in this sector and Thomas’s valiant efforts earned him the Navy Cross for heroism. Two days later, Thomas was on the summit with five of his men raising the American flag. As the Battle of Iwo Jima continued, thousands of men on both sides lost their lives, including Thomas, who was killed by enemy gun fire on March 3. He was buried at Iwo Jima, but his body was returned to Monticello after the war and laid to rest at Roseland Cemetery. The Navy Cross was awarded posthumously to Platoon Sergeant Thomas and presented to his mother in June 1946.

Platoon Sergeant Thomas’s mother, Martha, viewing a display of World War II flags at the Historic Capitol in Tallahassee with Governor Millard F. Caldwell, 1945.

In 1978, there was a push to honor the fallen soldier from Florida with a memorial in Monticello. State Senator Pat Thomas addressed the Senate on May 17, 1978, with Senate Concurrent Resolution 1024, to honor the bravery and heroism of Platoon Sergeant Thomas and endorse building a memorial in his honor. In his speech to the Florida Senate, Senator Thomas explained the need for the memorial saying, “We sometimes take for granted the freedoms we enjoy, which other men fought and died to preserve. So I think it is appropriate for us to occasionally take time to reflect on those great men and their great deeds.” Platoon Sergeant Thomas’s sister and brother-in-law, Jean and Billy Bishop, were on hand to receive a copy of the resolution. Senator Thomas’s speech from series 1238, box 42, tape 12 can be heard below.


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Copy of SCR 1024 recognizing the heroism of Sergeant Thomas and endorsing a memorial dedicated to him, May 17, 1978. It was also endorsed by the Florida House of Representatives with HB 1914. State Archives of Florida, Series 18, Box 636, Folder SRC 1024 by Sen. P. Thomas.

Three years later, on February 22, 1981, the memorial to Thomas was unveiled at a ceremony in Monticello. The monument is eight feet tall and five feet wide and depicts the first flag raising. Thomas’s brother, Jack Thomas, and sister, Jean, were present at the unveiling, as were some of the men who served with Thomas at Iwo Jima. Today, visitors to the memorial can take a moment to remember the sacrifice Platoon Sergeant Thomas and many other service members made for their country during World War II.

The monument to the first flag raisers on Iwo Jima located in Monticello, Florida, 1981. In a 2016 investigation by the Marine Corps, it was discovered that Private First Class James Michels and Private First Class Louis Charlo were not on the summit that day. The official record now states that Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley and Private Philip L. Ward were there that day.

A plaque describing Sergeant Thomas’s heroism stands by his grave at Roseland Cemetery in Monticello, Florida, 2018.

The monument in Monticello is located near 935 West Washington (US-90). Thomas’s grave is located at Roseland Cemetery in Monticello and includes a plaque dedicated to his heroism.

Resources

Bacon, Lance M. “Marines Say Men in First Iwo Jima Flag-Raising Photo Were Also Misidentified.” Marine Corps Times, August 24, 2016. https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/2016/08/24/marines-say-men-in-first-iwo-jima-flag-raising-photo-were-also-misidentified/.

Dailey, Ryan. “‘Boots Thomas: a Marine, a Hero and a Friend.” Tallahassee Democrat, October 29, 2015. http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2015/10/29/boots-thomas-marine-hero-and-friend/74805402/.

Goldstein, Richard. “Joe Rosenthal, Photographer at Iwo Jima, Dies.” New York Times, August 21, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/21/business/media/22rosenthalcnd.html.

Hayes, Paula. “Brave Local Man Hero On Iwo Jima.” Monticello News, February 23, 1978. State Library of Florida, Vertical File, Thomas-Thomason.

Journal of the Senate, Number 29, May 17, 1978, pages 388-389.  http://archive.flsenate.gov/data/Historical/Senate%20Journals/1970s/1978/35-379TO40305_17_78.PDF.

“Thomas Memorial To Be Dedicated.” Monticello News, February 19, 1981. State Library of Florida, Vertical File, Thomas-Thomason.

Judge James Dean of Key West

In 1888, James Dean was elected to be the county judge in Key West, Monroe County. A graduate of Howard University College of Law, he is said to be the first black judge elected in the post-Reconstruction South.

Judge James Dean - Monroe County, Florida. 18--? https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/13060

A photograph of Judge James Dean in Monroe County, Florida. Florida Photographic Collection, image number PR14947.

Dean was born on February 14, 1858, in Ocala, Florida, and attended Cookman Institute and Howard University. He became a Master at Law at Howard in 1884, graduating as the class valedictorian, and was admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court that same year.

Biography of Judge James Dean, Key West Daily Equator, 1884

Biography of Judge James Dean, Key West Daily Equator, 1884.

He was elected County Judge on November 6, 1888, and took office in January of 1889.

Letter from Judge Dean to Governor Fleming refusing to resign, August 22nd, 1889. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

Judge Dean’s record of his commission as the elected County Judge of Monroe County. Record of Commission dated December 18, 1888. Office of Secretary of State, Record of Commissions, S1285, Volume 37.

Less than eight months after Dean began serving as judge, Governor Francis Fleming ordered him to resign. He was accused of issuing a marriage license to an allegedly interracial couple, Antonio Gonzalez and Annie Maloney; both were actually of black Cuban descent, meaning the marriage was lawful at the time. Judge Dean protested his innocence in a series of letters to the governor.

Letter from Judge Dean to Governor Fleming refusing to resign, August 22nd, 1889. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

Letter from Judge Dean to Governor Fleming protesting his innocence of the charge against him and refusing to resign, July 20, 1889. Governor Fleming Correspondence, S580, Box 9.

Letter from Judge Dean to Governor Fleming refusing to resign, August 22nd, 1889. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

Letter from Judge Dean to Governor Fleming refusing to resign, August 22, 1889. Governor Fleming Correspondence, S580, Box 9.

 

His supporters in Key West sent a resolution of protest to the governor with five pages of signatures, to no avail.

A resolution of protest by citizens of Key West in support of Judge Dean. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

A resolution of protest by citizens of Key West in support of Judge Dean. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

A resolution of protest by citizens of Key West in support of Judge Dean. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

A resolution of protest by citizens of Key West in support of Judge Dean. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

A resolution of protest by citizens of Key West in support of Judge Dean. [Governor Fleming correspondence, S580, box 9]

A resolution of protest by citizens of Key West in support of Judge Dean. Governor Fleming Correspondence, S580, Box 9.

Governor Fleming issued an executive order suspending Judge Dean which stated that the suspension would remain in effect until the next adjournment of the Senate, unless the Senate decided to remove him.

Executive order suspending Judge James Dean [Governor’s letterbooks, S32, volume 25, part 6]

Executive order suspending Judge James Dean. Governor’s Letterbooks, S32, Volume 25, Part 6.

The Senate adjourned in 1891 without removing Judge Dean, which meant that his suspension would have expired, but Governor Fleming had already appointed a successor.

Dean fought his removal but was unsuccessful. He eventually moved to Jacksonville, where he died in 1914. His law books were auctioned off after his death to pay the debts of his estate.

Governor Bush signs a proclamation reinstating James Dean as a judge. [S2112, Governor (1999-2007, Bush) Speech and remark files and recordings, 02-26-02]

Governor Bush signs a proclamation reinstating James Dean as a judge, February 26, 2002. Governor (1999-2007, Bush) Speech and Remark Files and Recordings, S2112.

On February 26, 2002, Governor Jeb Bush issued a proclamation reinstating Dean’s judgeship. From the event outline, Governor Bush noted the facts of the case:

“That the executive order stated that Dean’s suspension would remain in effect until the next ADJOURNMENT of the Senate, unless the Senate decided to remove Judge Dean completely.

“The senate adjourned on June 5, 1891, without removing Judge Dean, therefore, his suspension expired upon the Senate’s adjournment on June 6, 1891. Legal research has shown that the marriage was lawful. Dean received a sworn statement from the husband saying that he was of black ancestry. Thus, the issuing of the marriage license was legal – no grounds for suspension.”

Excerpt from speech given February 26, 2002. Governor (1999-2007, Bush) Speech and Remark Files and Recordings, S2112.

In the closing remarks shown above, Governor Bush expressed the greater importance of understanding and acknowledging historical injustices in order to pave the way for a more equitable future.

For more information about Judge James Dean, please see the following series in the holdings of the State Archives of Florida: http://bit.ly/2losUsS, http://bit.ly/2lowgfg, http://bit.ly/2knaXuv and http://bit.ly/2k46gow.

Postmarked Christmas, Florida

Each year, people from miles around bring their holiday greeting cards to the post office in Christmas, Florida. Located 25 miles east of Orlando, this small community offers a unique opportunity for those sending holidays greeting cards to relatives and friends around the world: a postmark from Christmas.

The history of this community’s relationship with the Christmas holiday dates back to its founding. The Second Seminole War brought soldiers and settlers to the area, and they built a log fort on the outskirts to protect themselves from the Seminoles. The fort was constructed on December 25, 1837, and was appropriately named Fort Christmas.

When the first post office was established there in 1892, “Fort” was dropped and the community became known simply as Christmas. The Christmas postmark didn’t gain widespread attention until World War II, when servicemen stationed nearby would travel to the Christmas Post Office to have their letters sent home. The popularity of this postmark steadily increased following World War II, and people from all around the world now wish to have their holiday cards postmarked from Christmas, Florida.

Front of a postcard showing the U.S. Post Office building in Christmas, Florida.

Back of the postcard showing the Christmas, Fla. postmark. The postcard is postmarked March 17, 1950.

Juanita S. Tucker served as postmistress at the Christmas Post Office for 42 years, from 1932-1974. She was appointed to the position by President Herbert Hoover and succeeded her mother-in-law, Mrs. L.O. Tucker, who had served since 1914. As postmistress, Juanita Tucker saw the amount of holiday mail increase from year to year. People who couldn’t come in person to the post office could send packages filled with letters to have them stamped with the Christmas postmark. Holiday greeting cards and letters to Santa came from as far away as Scotland, England and the Philippines to be stamped. Many patrons, though, were locals who came back every year to partake in this newly minted Florida tradition.

Juanita Tucker at the post office window in Christmas, Florida, 1947.

To spread the word about her little community, Tucker wrote a booklet titled Perpetual Christmas (1934), in which she outlines the history of Christmas, Florida, including the post office’s history. She writes that the Christmas season at the post office “is a festive and merry occasion as well as a busy one.”

Perpetual Christmas (1934) was written by Juanita S. Tucker, who served as postmistress at the Christmas post office for 42 years. Click to read the entire booklet.

Around the holiday season, Tucker would add personal touches to the letters that came to the post office. While the postmark had to be stamped in black ink, she would personalize cards with an additional Christmas tree stamp in green ink for festive flair.

The post office became so inundated by holiday mail by the 1960s that Tucker had an addition built onto the existing post office and hired seasonal employees to lighten the load. Her husband, Cecil, was often around to assist during the holidays too. A cancellation machine also helped with the influx of mail, but Tucker still preferred to hand stamp the postmark because the stamp came out clearer. By the time she retired in 1974, the post office was mailing roughly 300,000 greeting cards from around the world and she had personally postmarked millions of cards.

Marion Stockton is Santa’s little helper at the post office in Christmas, Florida, 1947.

While the post office has changed a lot since Tucker’s retirement, the tradition of sending festive holiday greeting cards with the Christmas postmark remains. Floridians and residents nearby make the annual trip to the post office around Christmastime and can now decorate their envelopes with stamps and colorful ink provided by the post office.

What are your Christmas traditions? Have you had your holiday greeting cards stamped in Christmas, Florida? Share with us by posting a comment below or on our Facebook page!

Roxcy Bolton: Advocate for Women in Crisis

It wasn’t long ago that the United States did not have centers for women in crisis. In 1971, feminist Roxcy Bolton declared that the creation of crisis centers was long overdue. She shed light upon this issue amidst rising rates of crimes against women and outcries from women throughout the state of Florida. The creation of a treatment center for victims of sexual assault would not come easily or quickly. However, when it was established, it was the first of its kind in the nation and it set a precedent for those that followed.

Portrait of Roxcy Bolton, 1988.

Bolton was a pioneer of the feminist movement within Florida and nationwide, and “firsts” were something she excelled at. She founded the first National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in the state of Florida. She initiated a neighborhood crime watch in the city of Coral Gables, where she resided throughout most of her activism. The watch was the first of its kind in Florida, and through it Bolton empowered community members to watch after each other to prevent violent crime. She also founded Women in Distress in 1972, the first women’s rescue shelter in Florida. Women in Distress provided housing, rescue services and assistance to women in situations of personal crisis. It should be unsurprising then that two of Bolton’s many passions were women’s health and community safety. Her dedication to these initiatives is evident throughout the Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers, collection M94-1 at the State Archives.

Bolton’s drive for women’s health and safety pushed her to petition for change in sexual assault treatment and legislation. Bolton saw problems with how these issues were handled in Dade County. Victims, from Bolton’s perspective, were being treated inadequately by law enforcement. She also noted a stigma that followed victims throughout their everyday life. The stigma was apparent in the way victims were spoken about or to, as well as within the literature surrounding assault prevention. These factors, Bolton argued, were discouraging women from coming forward for help and from pursuing prosecution.

In a 1973 letter from Bolton to Sheriff and Director of Public Safety of Miami E. Wilson Purdy, Bolton declared that police officers must re-evaluate their approach toward sexual assault, arguing that 50% of allegations  were disqualified, which discouraged victims from coming forward. Bolton pushed for allegations to be more critically examined before they were disqualified.

Resources for prevention or for victims of sexual assault were hard to find. Pamphlets on how to prevent sexual assault offered common-sense tips: “Lock your house and car doors” and “Avoid walking alone.” Though sound advice for anyone, this would not aid in true prevention or help victims. It was pamphlets such as these that inspired Bolton to act. Women, she argued, “are tired of hearing that the way to prevent rape is to keep their car doors locked….” In her letter to Sheriff Purdy, Bolton wrote: “the issue is the same as if you, Sheriff Purdy, were beaten in your home by an intruder because you forgot to lock the door—you wouldn’t be grilled as to why you didn’t lock your door.”

Frustrated with the state of help available for victims, Roxcy organized the Protest March Against Crimes of Rape held on October 4, 1971.

Permit from the City of Miami for the Protest March Against Crimes of Rape, October 4, 1971.

Bolton led protesters in making demands to Chief Garmire of the Miami Police Department (MPD). The first demand Bolton and her marchers made was that the MPD promptly devise and implement ways to provide necessary protection for women against sexual assault. Bolton also called for more foot and scooter patrols on Miami streets, sodium lights to create a safer environment, more police call-in boxes and a hotline number to report all serious crime. If a crime related to sexual assault, it had to immediately be switched to a female officer, and female officers must also be present at any interrogations of victims. And finally, Bolton’s last demand: the police department must immediately investigate and rapidly process complaints.

Demands made to Chief Garmire from the leadership of the March Against Rape, October 2, 1971.

Some of these demands did end up being implemented. But it was not enough for Bolton. In her letter to Sheriff Purdy written on October 10, 1973, Bolton said she was proposing the establishment of a treatment center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Police were instructed to take victims directly to the center, rather than questioning the victims. Bolton felt that silence among victims jeopardized their physical and emotional wellbeing, and a center dedicated to their specific needs would help encourage them to come forward and seek help.

Letter from R. Ray Goode to Roxcy Bolton regarding the implementation of a center for sexual assault victims, November 15, 1973.

Roxcy Bolton at the opening of the Rape Treatment Center in Miami, 1974.

In January 1974, Bolton’s dream came to fruition. Open 24 hours a day, the Miami Rape Treatment Center offered their services for those who needed help. Within six months, the center had given aid to over 300 victims ages eight through 74. The center was run entirely by professionals under medical director Dr. Dorothy Hicks at its time of opening. And not all personnel were women; it was said by staff that “by isolating the victims from males, you are giving the message that all males are bad.”

Patients who came to the center received the entire spectrum of care. They were given a physical examination by a gynecologist, a psychiatric counselling session, necessary lab work and a police interview. All of these services were provided in one location, something that was not available before, providing stability and ease of access for patients. The center was in a separate location from the rest of the hospital services, allowing for truly specialized care—a request made by Bolton and the Women’s Task Force. The center was innovative in its approach to care and rehabilitation and inspired the creation of other centers like it throughout the country.

Letter from the Lola B. Walker Homeowners Association to Mayor Steven Clark regarding renaming the Dade County Rape Treatment Center after Roxcy Bolton, February 1, 1991.

It was a while in the making, but with Bolton’s determination, the center was created and is still open in Miami. After numerous letters from citizens pushing the issue, the center was renamed the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in 1993. Long after her Protest March Against Crimes of Rape, Bolton’s legacy as an advocate for victims continues on in the center for which she fought.

Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center dedication, May 7, 1993.

For more on Roxcy Bolton, see our photo exhibit and collections.

What Day is Thanksgiving?

On the fourth Thursday in November, folks across Florida and the nation will observe the Thanksgiving holiday. For many people, Thanksgiving inspires nostalgia for turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, desserts, autumn colors and gearing up for the holidays. Yet, as many know, the Thanksgiving table can at times host disputes, such as whose football team is better or the various merits of sweet potato versus pumpkin pie. But, as revealed in Series S368, Governor Fred Cone Correspondence, Florida was part of a national dispute over which day to observe Thanksgiving in 1939 and 1940.

Before the 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated with regional variations. Local governments or organizations proclaimed days of thanksgiving at various points throughout the year. In 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation for a day of public thanksgiving to take place on Thursday, November 26. Many subsequent presidents and governors proclaimed days of thanksgiving but dates varied until the 1860s. In 1850, Florida Governor Thomas Brown proclaimed Thanksgiving as November 28, the last Thursday of the month.

In 1850, Florida Governor Thomas Brown proclaimed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. State Archives of Florida, Series S13, Volume 1, Page 127.

Brown’s successor, Governor James E. Broome, changed the observed Thanksgiving date throughout his time in office. Broome selected the fourth Thursday in November in 1855. In 1856, citing a desire to be in unison with other states, Broome declared Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November.

Clipping from The (Tampa) Florida Peninsular, November 10, 1855, with Governor Broome’s proclamation of the fourth Thursday (November 22) as Thanksgiving.

Governor Broome’s Proclamation declaring Thanksgiving on November 20th, 1856. State Archives of Florida, Series S13, Volume 1, Page 273.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as national Thanksgiving Day. Over the next seven decades, presidents followed suit and the last Thursday in November became the traditional observation of the holiday. State governors also issued their own proclamations, but they usually lined up with the national observance. The Florida Legislature officially established Thanksgiving as a public holiday in 1905 (1905 Laws of Florida, Chapter 5392).

As is the case today, Thanksgiving in the early to mid-20th century was associated with Christmas shopping preparations. Retailers at the state and national level looked forward to a sales boost after Thanksgiving. In 1939, November’s last Thursday happened to be the last day of the month: November 30. Fearing a shortened holiday shopping season and still reeling from the Great Depression, retailers petitioned state and national governments to move Thanksgiving up a week, to November 23, to give an earlier boost to holiday sales (for more on Florida in the Great Depression, see our other photo exhibits, collections, and New Deal Research Guide).

J.A. Waterman, president of Maas Brothers, requesting that the governor select an earlier date for the Thanksgiving holiday in 1939.

President Franklin Roosevelt agreed with the change and indicated that he would issue his proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday in November: November 23, 1939 and November 21, 1940. On October 31, 1939, Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2373, officially setting the shifted holiday.

P.M. Birmingham, secretary of the Sarasota Retail Merchants Association, relays to the governor that the association will be celebrating Thanksgiving on November 23, 1939, as proclaimed by President Roosevelt.

While many welcomed the move, others were not so easily swayed. Many did not wish to alter long-held traditions, with Florida Governor Fred P. Cone among them. When asked about his intentions regarding the state proclamation for Thanksgiving in 1939, Cone indicated that he would err on the side of tradition and set the date as November 30.

https://www.floridamemory.com/fmp/selected_documents/medium/s368_b091_f05_x10_01.jpg

A poem sent to Governor Fred P. Cone criticizing Roosevelt’s changing the date of Thanksgiving.

Governor Fred P. Cone’s 1939 Proclamation, declaring Thursday November 30 as Thanksgiving in Florida. State Archives of Florida, Series S13, Volume 13, Page 229.

Cones’ traditional stance on Thanksgiving was welcomed by many throughout the state, as evidenced by these letters.

Mrs. Harriet Pratt Bodifield of Cocoa, Florida, thanks the governor for keeping with tradition and not changing the date of Thanksgiving to accommodate holiday shopping.

James M. Phillips of Phillips Hardware Company expressing support for the governor’s proclamation that Thanksgiving be November 30, 1939, rather than November 23, 1939. This letter shows that not all retailers desired the shifted date.

Twenty-two other states fell in line with Florida and observed Thanksgiving on November 30.

However, the shifted date was a source of consternation among several industries. Calendar manufacturers, for example, printed calendars two years out, making both the 1939 and 1940 calendars obsolete. The following exchange between the Stanwood-Hillson Corporation, a printing company, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt illustrates tensions over the Thanksgiving date change.

Letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to S. Hillson concerning the calendar printing industry’s objections to the shifted dates of Thanksgiving.

S. Hillson’s reply to Eleanor Roosevelt explaining the potential losses faced by calendar printers.

In 1940, the publication Hardware Age, printed a calendar addendum to list which states celebrated what date in order to address obsolete calendars created by the shifted date.

Other industries were also affected by the change of date. The editors of Turkey World Magazine, noting “confusion in the turkey industry,” wrote to the governor asking for clarification so the magazine could properly inform their readers.

M.C. Small, managing editor of Turkey World magazine, requests that the governor reply with information about when Thanksgiving 1939 will be held in Florida and the governor’s opinion about the future observance of the holiday.

The National Council for Teachers of English noted that their annual conference was customarily held on the weekend after Thanksgiving. When New York, one of the states in favor of an early Thanksgiving, hosted the 1939 conference, the council wrote to Governor Cone asking that he encourage local school boards to allow English teachers leave time on November 23 and 24 in order to attend the conference.

Alice Colvin Wright, president of the New York City Association of English Teachers, requests that the governor urge local school boards in Florida to let teachers attend the annual convention in New York over the Thanksgiving holiday break. Since Florida did not change the date of Thanksgiving to match the national calendar, New York and Florida had different official Thanksgiving holidays.

The Florida Bankers Association decided to observe both November 23 and November 30 as holidays to minimize confusion among their employees.

The bulletin states that banks of Florida will observe both November 23 and November 30 as Thanksgiving holidays so that there is uniformity across the state.

Florida Attorney General George Couper Gibbs also sought clarification. Under the attorney general’s reading of the law, Governor Cone’s intention on the traditional observance presented ambiguities.

Attorney General George Couper Gibbs advising the governor as to which day of the year Thanksgiving should fall on.

By proclamation, however, Governor Cone insisted on the traditional date as the state’s official observance. In the end, many towns followed the Florida Bankers Association in observing both days as holidays.

During the following year, the same controversy gripped Florida. Residents tried to plan accordingly to avoid the confusion from 1939. In January 1940, representatives from high schools across Florida contacted Governor Cone asking him for clarification for the date of Thanksgiving so they could properly schedule their traditional football rivalry games for the appropriate weekend. Florida and 15 other states once again broke with the federal date and held Thanksgiving on the traditional day, the last Thursday in November.

Letter from S.R. Troydon, athletic director at Landon Junior-Senior High School, asking the governor to confirm the date of the Thanksgiving holiday in 1940.

The controversy surrounding Thanksgiving’s date continued even into 1941. President Roosevelt finally admitted that the changes were not worth the hassle or confusion. The earlier date alienated many Americans, and they refused to go shopping until after they observed the traditional holiday. So, on October 6, through U.S. House Joint Resolution (HJR) 41, Congress attempted to set the date for future Thanksgiving observances as the last Thursday in November. Then, on December 9, the Senate amended HJR 41 to account for November months with five Thursdays by setting the fourth Thursday in the month as Thanksgiving Day. Every Thanksgiving since 1942 has been celebrated on this day.

https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving

Senate Amendments to HJR 41, making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday, December 9, 1941. RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration.

No matter your Thanksgiving plans, the State Archives wishes you an enjoyable holiday!