In 1826, John Brown Russwurm graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, becoming the first black man to graduate from Bowdoin and the third black person to graduate from college in the United States.
Russwurm’s name was a constant part of my education at Tampa’s Howard W. Blake Junior Senior High School from the fall of 1958 to the end of the senior year in 1964. The facts of Russwurm were delivered as oral history by civics teacher Clyde Allen. Seemingly, to this day, if we don’t repeat certain facts over and over, then, the information will not survive unless we write it down.
“Black history is oral history and we are just beginning to write it down.” That statement was uttered to me by St. Petersburg Times columnist Peggy Peterman in 1984.
In the spring of 1865, just after the Civil War ended, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established to aid freedmen (freed slaves) in the South during the Reconstruction era.
Under the guidelines of the Freedmen’s Bureau, each state was ordered to create school superintendents, and every category of life would come under the control of the very capable officers of the military.
Florida’s records were not available at the time of my research, however, the archival educational information of the southern states of Virginia and Georgia were on order from the National Archives Microfilm Publications.
There was some information in the Florida State Archives that proved to be of great value. Albeit, many of the reports were very interesting and important to scholarship and after a few years of reading, I realized that the various “schools of thought” who lead the development of publications did not know our families, nor were they permitted to use real names in their publications.
A generation after the very first journalists graduated from Columbia University, a flurry of non-detailed stories, reports, pamphlets and books appeared around 1925. Historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Howard University’s philosophy professor Dr. Alain Locke made it possible for another Columbia University graduate, Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, to collect and conduct extraordinary documentations on black life within the state.
Prior to the formation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, many children in North Florida were already being educated at church and at home according to the basic survival needs of the family. “By the time a child grows to the age of three years old, he or she has a vocabulary of about three hundred fifty words,” said Dr. S. Randolph Edmonds in 1966. Edmonds, a doctor of laws and letters was a native of Lawrenceville, Va.
In Gadsden County, Rev. George Washington Witherspoon was recruited from Georgia in 1859 by local deputy sheriff, John William “Cubit” Nixon. He was well known to expertly ride a Palomino horse. It was told to me by Mrs. Janie Bell Muse Burch of Mulberry that, “Rev. Witherspoon had a booming and commanding voice. He would be a teacher to the children and a strong and influential religious leader for the adults. He also officiated at marriages and baptisms.”
The plan called for Rev. Witherspoon to teach the children the basics of the alphabets, spelling, arithmetic and writing. He was a highly regarded gentleman and was well known for paying extra attention to the learning habits of the students.
In those days, there were very few materials, especially textbooks; however, pencils and paper were provided. The students did not toss their work at the end of the school day. The papers were kept neatly by the teacher.
The children were at school only a few hours a day. There was very little time for play but a recess or time out was always an integral part of the day. The facilities provided to house the schools were usually one room of a covered barn or church. Students left before noon so that they could eat supper at home. The term lunch, as we know it, was a much later phenomenon.
Children, most often, worked alongside their families with crops, errands and other chores.
The Peripatetic Method of teaching was greatly utilized. Today, we call that style a field trip! Sort of like traveling, which is considered to be the “best educator.” During recess, Rev. Witherspoon walked with his students around the yard and along paths. Whatever they encountered was identified and questions were asked if they could not specifically name an item, a plant, a tree, a stone, a rock, etc.
Everything that was visible to them was termed. They went from oral learning outside to spelling “out loud” and written spelling inside. The students gathered and collected acorns, pecans, chinaberries and anything else imaginable that could be used to learn to count during arithmetic. Some children became so proficient in certain skills they were used at home to teach their younger siblings. Not everyone attended formal school. Only the very obedient were allowed to enroll.
A mere three years after the end of the Civil War, Dartmouth College graduate Jonathan C. Gibbs, who became the first black Secretary of State in 1868. After leaving that post, he was named the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Florida in 1873.
Gibbs died the following year a few months after the collapse of the Freedmen’s Bank in Tallahassee. Colonels were in charge of the deposits. When those banks failed, it was said that the money was used to pay for the cost of the Civil War. There is no official Florida record of Gibb’s death!
The Morrill Acts, I and II were written to establish schools and colleges under the direction of the first president to earn a college degree, Thomas Jefferson. The second Morrill Act helped to create the Florida State Industrial School for the Colored that included the Seminole Indians and the colleges that have become known as HBCUs. The Florida Normal School for the Colored, now known as Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University was opened in 1887 12 years after eight Negroes were elected to the Florida Assembly during the Black Reconstruction Period. The students were not continuing in the military like boarding school the full two years required for graduation until the school was made a federal land grant institution in 1890.
My paternal grandfather, Jessie Earnest Nixon, was in the very first class to graduate in 1892 with four other young men. He was 16 years old upon entrance, which was the required age. Their graduation was made possible because Jessie’s father, Senator John William “Cubit” Nixon, who also served as Assistant Treasurer of the State of Florida, had the money to pay for their full two-year term. The other four graduates’ names were not told to me by one Rev. John L. Nixon of Homeland and Boca Grande, and the other Thelma Nixon Pratt of Pierce and Lakeland.
In 1895, Jessie married Ethel Edna Wright, a daughter of the superintendent of the Homeland School, Henry Wright. With the help of many new family, they helped to relocate other Gadsden County relatives to Polk County to work in the new booming phosphate industry and related businesses of turpentine collections, land restoration, “poets of the swinging blade,” and ongoing citrus trades using the railroads.
Homeland was a small-unincorporated village four miles south of Bartow and four miles north of Fort Meade. The black quarters no longer exists.
In summation, there are many family history treasures of puzzling pieces just waiting for each individual to explore. Take the long way home, it’s an education!
About Jacqueline N. Cotman
A seventh generation Florida native, Cotman is serving as the current ASALH historian. She was the youngest of sixty Tampa honor students to travel by train to visit the White House in 1959. In the fall of 1963, she and three other Blake High School seniors desegregated television in the Tampa Bay market by participating on a panel discussion.
During December of the following year, as a freshman at FAMU, she was among the seven homecoming queens to desegregate South Beach’s Royal Palm Boutique Hotel on Collins Avenue under police escort, during the weekend of the fabled Orange Blossom Classic. In 1965, the Queen’s Court desegregated the downtown hotels of Miami.
Cotman is a 51-year-soror of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and a 38-year-member of the Association of Junior Leagues.