Miss Nancy’s Story

This is the second installment of our two-part blog series highlighting the Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1) available at the State Archives of Florida. Benda was one of the first mermaids to perform at Weeki Wachee Springs when it opened in 1947. She later went on to star in WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show “Miss Nancy’s Store”  from 1966-1967 before working for the Florida Department of Education.

After splashing onto the scene in the 1940s as one of the first-ever Weeki Wachee mermaids, Nancy Tribble Benda briefly stepped out of the limelight to pursue a degree in elementary education at Florida State University (FSU). But by the 1960s she was making waves again. This time as the star of her own educational television show: The hit children’s series “Miss Nancy’s Store” aired on WFSU-TV from 1966-1967. During an illustrious 40-year public education career, Benda worked both on and off-screen to expand educational access in Florida.

Nancy Tribble Benda on the set of WFSU-TV's educational children's television show,

Nancy Tribble Benda on the set of WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show, “Miss Nancy’s Store,” ca. 1966.

Nancy Tribble was born in 1930. Back then, radio was king and television was still a new-fangled experiment. But by the time a teen-aged Ms. Tribble landed her role as an underwater entertainer at the new Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park in Brooksville, Florida, in 1947, home television sets had debuted in American markets. Over the next decade, as television began to redefine national media consumption, it would also redirect Benda’s career path.

Shortly after appearing in the 1948 motion picture Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Benda hung up her mermaid fin and moved back to her hometown of Tallahassee, where she enrolled at Florida State University. She married architect Charles Benda in 1950. After graduation, Mrs. Nancy Tribble Benda took her first job at Havana Elementary School in Gadsden County, teaching fifth grade. A few years later, she transferred to Sealey Memorial Elementary in Leon County. But Benda wouldn’t stay in a traditional classroom for long. Her combined performance and teaching talents would soon thrust her into the emerging educational television industry.

Nancy Tribble Benda with her sorority sisters at Florida State University, ca. 1949.

Benda (second row, right) at the Alpha Xi Delta Sorority rush party at Florida State University, ca. 1949.

Ed. Television Comes to Florida

By 1955, half of American households owned a television. Big networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC captivated audiences with the comedic cheese of family sit-coms like The Goldbergs, Leave it to Beaver, and I Love Lucy. However, heavy product placement, gimmicky ads and implausible story lines left some parents and professionals concerned that the first generation of American youngsters to grow up in front of the television were starved for intellectual stimulation.

The answer to the call for more educational television programming first arrived in 1952 with the creation of the Educational Television and Radio Center (later renamed National Educational Television and replaced by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1970). The network aimed to educate the nation’s growing number of television viewers with an entertaining yet enriching lineup. Proponents saw potential in the new technology’s unprecedented ability to provide underserved populations with quality educational programming.

Individual states soon caught on to the idea of “teleducation,” developing the first statewide educational television networks in the 1950s. Florida’s population increased enormously after World War II, ballooning from just under 2 million in 1940 to 3.7 million by 1955. The dramatic influx of new residents overburdened the state’s traditional public education infrastructure. Consequently, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, who was elected in 1954 on a progressive education platform, looked to the remote access afforded by educational television programming as a possible solution.

In 1957, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Educational Television Commission (Ch. 57-312, Laws) “to provide through educational television a means of extending the powers of teaching in public education and of raising living and educational standards of the citizens and residents of the state.”

The commission joined with state universities and the independent Florida Institute for Continuing University Studies (FICUS) to create the Florida Television Network. The entity produced both closed-circuit and public access educational programming to enhance learning in all levels of public education, from kindergarten to adult learning.

Illustration showing the radial reach of the Florida Television Network's six stations, ca. 1966.

Illustration showing the radial reach of the Florida Television Network’s six stations, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

Some channels also collaborated with local school boards. WTHS-TV in Miami opened the first school board-run station in the country in 1957, serving students enrolled in district by day and the general public by night. In 1960 WFSU-TV, whose production studios were located on FSU’s campus, went live in Tallahassee.

By 1965, six non-commercial broadcast stations were in operation throughout Florida: Tallahassee, Gainesville, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

Tallahassee’s T.V. Teacher

Benda’s role in the rising educational television movement started in 1960, when she took a continuing education summer school class on the “techniques” of educational television. The following year, she and several other local Leon County elementary school teachers formulated a curriculum for a televised fifth grade social studies course for students in the district.

Once the Leon County School Board approved the new social studies course, the school board held auditions for an on-air teaching position and Benda won the part. On February 1, 1962, the first episode of the live history-themed puppet show, “Our Nation’s Story,” premiered on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11. During the course, which aired every Tuesday and Thursday at 2:00 p.m. in fifth grade social studies classrooms throughout Leon County, Benda taught lessons on the history of the United States from “the westward movement in the late 1840s … to [the] beginnings] [of] space travel.”

WFSU-TV program guide featuring an advertisement for "Our Nation's Story," 1963. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

WFSU-TV program guide featuring an advertisement for “Our Nation’s Story,” 1963. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

WFSU-TV’s reach expanded quickly to the rural counties surrounding Leon County, including Calhoun, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Wakulla counties. The program supplemented traditional classroom material and helped break down educational access barriers, serving an estimated 6,000 viewers in the Big Bend area.

“We want to be sure we’re fulfilling a need and we want to put TV to best use,” Benda said. The school board eventually approved Benda’s transfer from Sealey Elementary to full-time status as a television teacher. Only responsible for teaching one course, the state’s handful of TV teachers were able to devote more time to enhancing their lessons and making them more engaging for students. Additionally, TV teachers could fill in if a school did not have a teacher qualified to teach a particular course.

Before long, Benda was appearing on Florida’s other five regional public television stations as part of the network’s statewide educational programming initiative, “Through the TV Tube,” which offered for-credit elementary, secondary and college telecourses. Benda taught televised elementary level American history and science classes. The network also offered Spanish, physical education,reading, literature, art, writing and speech courses. Additionally, many Florida high schoolers tuned in to watch a televised version of the legislatively mandated six-week high school course, Americanism vs. Communism. The Cold War-era content remained a public school curriculum requirement until 1983 when lawmakers replaced it with an essential economics class.

Tube

Letter from the Florida Institute for Continuing University Studies to Nancy Benda thanking the teacher for her work on “Through the TV Tube” with a “small honorarium,” August 3, 1964. Nancy Benda Collection N2016-1, Box 05, Folder 1, State Archives of Florida.

Florida’s innovative educational television programming garnered high praise from national critics. Nancy Benda won the 1965 Freedoms Foundation Award for her work on “Our Nation’s Story.”

Additionally, Television Digest touted the Florida networks’ expansive coverage, writing in 1964 that “Despite much talk by other states about elaborate, proposed ETV systems, Florida is still the only state to achieve anything like a real statewide network with programs available to significant numbers of major population areas.”

Benda’s interest in educational television stemmed from her deeper passion for educational equality. After participating in Operation Headstart, a federal program launched in 1965 aimed at providing early childhood education for low-income children, she saw a greater need for high-quality kindergarten instruction.

“In many poverty[-stricken] homes children haven’t even seen books or heard good music. But even in middle or upper class homes, children of working parents often lack opportunities… the parents just don’t have time,” the television teacher elaborated to the St. Petersburg Times.

Determined to help bridge the gaps, Nancy Benda pitched a new children’s television show to WFSU-TV.

 “Miss Nancy’s Store”

In 1965, the Florida Department of Education partnered with WFSU-TV to create, “Miss Nancy’s Store,” an enchanting new after school puppet show geared toward boosting childhood literacy. The series starred Benda in the title role and premiered in January 1966.

Nancy Benda working on the set of

Nancy Benda working on the set of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” ca. 1966.

At the height of its run, “Miss Nancy’s Store” aired on all six public television stations in Florida five nights per week at 5:00 p.m, with a potential viewing audience of six million people.

“It’s really a cooperative venture. Parents in the community have felt a need for a children’s show in the area at this time–something they could be sure wouldn’t have to be supervised, something educational, sound, well-done and enjoyable,” she explained.

While filming the show, Benda also earned her master’s in elementary education supervision via correspondence graduate courses at FSU. She brought her expertise to the set and hit all the right marks with viewers.

Miss Nancy stands next to a magical pot-bellied stove in her store, ca. 1966. The stove's smoke transported children into an alternative world filled with music and moving pictures. Other props included a

Miss Nancy stands next to a magical pot-bellied stove in her store, ca. 1966. On the show, the stove’s smoke transported children into an alternative world filled with music and moving pictures. Other props included a “no-cracker cracker barrel” filled with toys, a gramophone, and a secret door in the brick wall where puppets appeared.

Upon turning on the tube, children were transported in the magical world of Miss Nancy’s Store. To get youngsters excited about learning, Nancy employed creative tactics not feasible in a regular classroom. Miss Nancy played dress up and taught language lessons with the help of the show’s colorful puppet characters. “We want children to watch because [they are] interested, not because mama or teacher says it’s good to learn,” she emphasized to a reporter.

Booklet detailing the premise of

Booklet detailing the different characters and quirks of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” as well as the information about the show’s current and future budget, 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and flip through the full record.

“Miss Nancy’s Store” ranked number one on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11, receiving 11,000 pieces of fan mail in its first year. To make the show more interactive, she spent the last few minutes of each episode acknowledging viewers’ birthdays and reading  fan letters. Florida Commissioner of Education Floyd T. Christian praised the show for its top-notch instructional content.

“I watch your show every day, and I like it very very much…. My mother likes your show too, and thinks you are very pretty and charming. She also thanks you for keeping me out of her hair while she fixes dinner. [We] both send you a big kiss,” gushed one young viewer.

Fan letter to Nancy Benda from five-year-old Timmy Wilson of Hialeah, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 10, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge.

Fan letter to Nancy Benda from five-year-old Timmy Wilson of Hialeah, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 10, State Archives of Florida.

Despite such favorable ratings and reviews, the show billed high production costs. And a lack of funding forced the network to cancel “Miss Nancy’s Store” in August 1967. Fans, from kindergartners to grandparents, wrote futile pleas to the show’s producers, begging them to keep it on the air.

“I watch Miss Nancy’s Store, everyday. I like her program. Would you please keep her on the air, so children of my age and yonger [sic.] can continue to be educated and intertained [sic.]?”

Letter from

Letter from “Miss Nancy’s Store” fan Wanda Coles in reaction to series cancellation, August 2, 1967. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 12, State Archives of Florida.

One adult viewer pleaded with producers to keep the show on the air, asking if “For once, couldn’t the viewer be considered and some other program be dropped and put the money into this feature that holds so many children’s attention?”  She attached an article referring to children’s TV as a “mini-wasteland” to support her case.

Letter to WFSU-TV producers from Mrs. George Brant on the cancellation of

Letter to WFSU-TV producers from Mrs. George Brant on the cancellation of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” August 13, 1967. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 12, State Archives of Florida. Click to view full record.

Lifelong Educator

Once “Miss Nancy’s Store” stopped filming, Benda accepted a job with the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) as the director of equal opportunity programs. Until her retirement in 2003, the former television star took up the charge of enforcing Title IX–a 1972 federal law barring sex discrimination in scholastic and athletic programs at educational institutions receiving federal funds–in Florida’s public schools. She traveled the state investigating the disparities in athletic offerings for male and female students. Sports teach discipline and competition, she said. Benda intimated that “those are skills that have served our males very well,” and would benefit women as well.

In 1993 she traveled to Washington D.C., testifying as a witness in a congressional hearing on alleged sex discrimination in secondary and collegiate level sports. Toward the end of her tenure with FDOE, Benda expressed tempered views on the progress of educational opportunity in Florida: “Schools have made some enormous strides, [but] there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Nancy Tribble Benda died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 85. After the former educator’s passing, her family donated her career files to the State Archives of Florida for preservation. The collection documents the television teacher’s historic contributions to expanding educational access in Florida. A sampling of items from the collection is now available online.

Florida now boasts a total of 13 public access channels, their success owed in part to the educational television framework built by innovative teachers like Nancy Benda.

Selected Sources:

Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1). State Archives of Florida.

Educational Television Commission Minutes (.S 1913). State Archives of Florida.

Remembering Former Florida University Chancellor Charlie Reed

Charles Bass Reed, who served as Chancellor of Florida’s university system from 1985-1998, died Tuesday, December 6. He was 75 years old.

Chancellor of the Florida Board of Regents Charles B. Reed, ca. 1985.

Chancellor of the Florida Board of Regents Charles B. Reed, ca. 1985.

Known to most as Charlie, Reed was born in 1941 and grew up in the working-class coal mining town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. As one of  eight children, Reed’s father told him early on that he either “needed to get a scholarship and go to college,” or get a local job.  The high school football star chose the former after George Washington University offered him a football scholarship. Many years later, the top education official reminisced with Tampa Tribune columnist Tim McEwan about his glory days on the college football field: “I played against the Gators in Ray Graves’ first coaching job at Jacksonville. We played them good, and lost 12-6. I can still remember how it was…. And I played against Bill Peterson’s Florida State Seminoles and we got beat.”

Despite a demanding football schedule, Reed graduated on time with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education. “I understand athletics. I know what they can do for the individual, for the student body and the school,” Reed explained. He would later apply his experiences with college-level athletics to his job as university chancellor, imposing stricter academic standards for college athletes to maintain their scholarships—much to the chagrin of some football coaches. He defended the introduction of these policies, telling the Miami Herald in 1989,  “I know what it means to be offered an opportunity, and I know what it takes to earn it.”

After completing his undergraduate studies, the ambitious young Reed went on to receive both a master’s and doctorate in education from George Washington University, where he served as a faculty member from 1963 to 1970. He then worked for the National Association of Colleges for Teacher Education before moving to Florida in the early 1970s. From 1971 to 1979, Dr. Reed was employed by the Florida Department of Education, where he served as the Director of the Office of Educational Planning, Budgeting, and Evaluation. After Governor Bob Graham took office in 1979, he appointed Reed as his Deputy Chief of Staff. The Pennsylvania native served in that position from 1981 until 1984.

Education Commissioner Betty Castor (left), and Chancellor Charles Reed (center), listen to the comments of former House Speaker Lee Moffitt (right) outside of the Florida Capitol Complex, 1987.

Education Commissioner Betty Castor (left) and Chancellor Charles Reed (center), listen to the comments of former House Speaker Lee Moffitt (right) outside of the Florida Capitol Complex during University of South Florida Day, 1987.

In August 1985, Reed became the chancellor of the Board of Regents, which at the time oversaw the operations of Florida’s nine universities. A tenth university campus, Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, opened during Reed’s tenure. At the helm of higher education policy in Florida, Reed was known for his strong work ethic and effective lobbying skills. “He has contacts, he has leadership…. He’s just a hell of a worker,” praised DuBose Ausley, longtime chair of the Board of Regents.

Reed’s leadership skills helped to significantly expand enrollment numbers, reputation, and budget of Florida’s universities. He introduced Florida’s prepaid college program and routinely advocated to expand equal access to higher education. Before leaving Florida in 1998 to take a position as Chancellor of the California State University System, Charlie Reed sat down with reporters to discuss the accomplishments and failures of higher education in Florida during his 13 years as chancellor. “Probably the single biggest accomplishment was the National Science Foundation decision to move the mag lab from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)” to Florida State University in Tallahassee.

View of the High Magnetic Lab at Florida State University in Tallahassee, 1995. The facility opened in 1994.

View of the High Magnetic Lab at Florida State University in Tallahassee, 1995. The facility opened in 1994.

As for any failures, Reed lamented his inability to get raises for university faculty, citing the realities of legislative budget constraints. Overall, when it came to disappointment, Reed took a page out of his old college football playbook. “[On failure] I don’t think that way. If you participate in athletics you might lose today, but you play a new game tomorrow,” he reconciled. Reed retired from his post in California in 2012.  He is survived by his wife, two children, and five grandchildren.

 

Strawberry Schools

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

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

Students attending a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Home for Higher Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governor for a Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

LeRoy Collins and the Brown Decision

Saturday, May 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The unanimous ruling overturned the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which had served as the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation in public facilities across the South, especially in the public schools. The court argued that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that African American children attending segregated schools were deprived of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Most elected officials in Florida, as in other Southern states, recoiled from the Supreme Court’s decision and explored their options for keeping Jim Crow firmly in place. The state first responded by asking the Supreme Court to stay its ruling while it studied the potential effects of desegregation with the help of social scientists.

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at "The Grove" in Tallahassee. "The Grove," built around 1840 by Florida's territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at “The Grove” in Tallahassee. “The Grove,” built around 1840 by Florida’s territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins, who took office in January 1955, faced a difficult situation. On the one hand, he recognized that extremism on the segregation issue could cost Florida in terms of tourism and business growth. On the other hand, state legislators favoring complete retention of Jim Crow without compromise were powerful and vocal. Collins attempted to chart a middle course that would preserve school segregation while also retaining Florida’s image as a progressive state. In 1957, he asked the Legislature to approve a committee on race relations that would help maintain domestic order and improve living standards for African Americans. Florida lawmakers responded by passing a resolution alleging that the U.S. Supreme Court had overstepped its mandate in ruling school segregation illegal. The resolution called on the State (in essence, Collins) to “interpose its powers between its people and the effort of the said Court to assert an unlawful dominion over them.” The full text of the resolution is available as part of our Significant Documents exhibit.

First page of the Florida Legislature's

First page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution (May 1957).

Collins was infuriated by the measure because it was exactly the kind of extreme reaction he feared would hurt Florida in the long run. Because the legislation was merely a resolution and not a bill designed to become law, the governor could not veto it. He did, however, have the opportunity to sign the resolution when it came to his office as a matter of procedure. In place of his signature, Collins filled the middle of the page with a lengthy and dramatic protest against the resolution, calling it an “evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria.”

The final page of the Florida Legislature's

The final page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution, with Governor Collins’ protest written around the space for his signature (May 1957).

The full text of Governor Collins’ statement:

This concurrent resolution of ‘Interposition’ crosses the Governor’s desk as a matter of routine. I have no authority to veto it. I take this means however to advise the student of government, who may examine this document in the archives of the state in the years to come that the Governor of Florida expressed open and vigorous opposition thereto. I feel that the U. S. Supreme Court has improperly usurped powers reserved to the states under the constitution. I have joined in protesting such and in seeking legal means of avoidance. But if this resolution declaring the decisions of the court to be ‘null and void’ is to be taken seriously, it is anarchy and rebellion against the nation which must remain ‘indivisible under God’ if it is to survive. Not only will I not condone ‘interposition’ as so many have sought me to do, I decry it as an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria. If history judges me right this day, I want it known that I did my best to avert this blot. If I am judged wrong, then here in my own handwriting and over my signature is the proof of guilt to support my conviction.

Although Collins’ statement captured a great deal of attention, the Legislature was unmoved. In the same session, it passed a law allowing schools to be closed in the event the federal government used force to desegregate them. Florida’s public schools remained almost completely segregated until after 1960.
Teachers, for information on how to use the resources of Florida Memory pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement in your classroom, visit our Black History Month resource page and the Civil Rights Movement in Florida learning unit.