“We do not refuse anyone on account of race,” Orange Park Normal and Industrial School principal Amos W. Farnham wrote to William N. Sheats in the spring of 1894.
In a letter to Sheats, Florida’s top education official, Farnham described a faith-based institution in Clay County that was racially integrated 60 years before Brown v. Board of Education. Black and white students went to chapel, ate meals and learned together. Boys at the school, he wrote, “play baseball, ‘shinney,’ marbles and other games together.”
Those words would soon spell trouble for the school, its students and its teachers.
Sheats, who would later be hailed as the “father of Florida’s public school system,” was an unrepentant segregationist and racist who launched an 18-year campaign to destroy the upstart school. His staunch opposition to racial integration fueled a decades-long crackdown on dozens of schools — many of them private institutions run by religious aid societies. It also inspired laws that subjected Florida to national ridicule and dashed hopes of racial progress after Reconstruction.
Known as the Sheats Law, a Florida statute barring black and white children from being taught in the same school was struck down in court, 120 years ago next month.
A school with a mission
Orange Park Normal and Industrial School was founded by the American Missionary Association (AMA), a protestant abolitionist society, with a mission to educate the children of freed black slaves.
The school took its name from the surrounding town, an enclave of northern transplants just south of Jacksonville on the banks of the St. Johns River. It first opened its doors to 26 students, including 16 boarders, in October 1891. By the fall of 1892, its enrollment swelled to 116 students.
The school provided a primary education for grades 1-8 as well as teacher training, vocational training and college preparatory coursework for older students in grades 9-12. In addition to typical courses of the day such as grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and calisthenics, the school also taught music, stenography, typing, agriculture, botany, horticulture, wood-working and printing.
The school’s reputation for providing a high-quality education, coupled with a lack of nearby public options, attracted local white students as well as black. By 1894 thirty-five white children were enrolled, including several who lived in the dorms.
In the 1894 annual report to the AMA, Rev. T.S. Perry, minister of the Orange Park congregation, proudly boasted of the school’s success. “On this very spot,” Perry wrote of the school, “where less than a generation ago gangs of slaves toiled under the overseer’s lash, and within rifle-shot of the plantation whipping post, their children are now developing into worthy citizenship; and youth, both white and colored, are growing up into enlightened Christian manhood and womanhood.”
The successful, desegregated private school also attracted the attention of William Sheats, the new leader of Florida’s public education system.
A former superintendent of the Alachua County school district, Sheats was Florida’s first elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction. He held the post for a total of more than two decades, serving from 1893 to 1905, and again from 1913 until his death in 1922. He was the architect of Florida’s uniform system of public schools, compulsory student attendance rules and efforts to standardize teacher training. His determination to reform and modernize Florida’s public schools made him known as “Florida’s little giant of education” and “Florida’s progressive educator.”
Sheats was also a racist who used his position of power to oppress black people throughout the state. As a 19th-century progressive, he believed blacks should receive some form of education, but he opposed ceding them any political power. Sheats’ views helped influence the Constitutional Convention of 1885, which rolled back Florida’s “carpetbagger” constitution of 1868, drafted during Reconstruction.
The 1885 constitutional rewrite banned interracial marriage and instituted a poll tax to disenfranchise black voters.
According to the late Florida State University historian Joe M. Richardson, Sheats helped author Article XII, Section 12, which stated: “White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school, but impartial provision shall be made for both.”
The separate-but-equal requirement would remain in the constitution until 1968.
Cracking down on a ‘nest of vile fanatics’
After receiving principal Farnham’s letter in the spring of 1894, Sheats lashed out, calling the school a “social and moral blotch,” and a “vile encroachment upon our social and moral system.” He began to lobby state lawmakers to put a stop to it. His efforts failed in 1894, but in early 1895 the Florida Legislature passed the Sheats Law, “An Act to prohibit white and negro youths from being taught in the same school.”
The law drew national attention. The New York Times reported in 1896 that the law “provided that it should be a penal offense” for any person or organization to run a school, public, private or parochial, “wherein white persons and negroes should be instructed or boarded within the same building or taught in the same class, or at the same time, by the same teacher.”
Those found guilty could be fined between $150 and $500, or imprisoned for three to six months, for the offense of teaching, or learning in a desegregated school.
The AMA responded to Sheats’ law, writing that “ice entered some peoples’ hearts,” during the cold winter of 1894.
According to Richardson, the AMA lampooned the Florida Legislature as ignorant and misguided, revealing to its national audience that lawmakers had once overwhelmingly voted against a bill providing for the slaughter of rabid dogs after a confused host of legislators spoke “glowing tributes to the qualities of rabbit dogs.”
The image of ignorant southern yokels leading Florida emboldened the AMA, but only served to antagonize Sheats and his supporters. He pushed Clay County officials to indict the “nest of vile fanatics” at the Orange Park School. Sheats devised a strategy to continually arrest the school’s all-white faculty until they gave up and their institution closed for good.
The arrests wouldn’t happen until April 1896, when principal B.D. Rowlee (who took over in the 1894-95 school year) was arrested alongside five teachers, three patrons and a local minister.
They were charged with the crime of educating students at a desegregated school. Although they were released after posting bail, the school closed in early May after being warned its staff would be arrested and fined for each day they violated the law.
That same month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson. Sheats and his supporters rejoiced, but the AMA remained determined to fight the unjust law and reopen the school.
According to Richardson, the arrests and closure of the school, along with a broader crackdown that temporarily shuttered private schools for black children across the state, helped Sheats win an overwhelming victory in his reelection in the fall of 1896.
The Florida Times-Union inveighed in favor of Sheats. The Jacksonville newspaper wrung its hands over the prospect of racial mixing in an editorial, which argued:
The fanatics who aim ultimately at miscegenation in the South had as well make up their mind that they will have to submit to the law of the state.
On October 21, 1896, lawyers for the AMA argued before the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida that the law was unconstitutional. The lawyers argued the law was far broader than the title suggested, that it violated teachers’ right to ply their trade, and that it violated the federal 14th Amendment rights of teachers and students.
A day later, a telegram arrived at the AMA’s annual meeting in Boston declaring victory: “Sheats law this day declared unconstitutional and void.”
Upon hearing the news, the audience in Boston erupted in “cheering, clapping of hands and waving of hankerchiefs… The Jubilee was on indeed, in grateful joy,” an anonymous witness recalls in an account preserved by the Clay County Archives.
Sheats wasn’t done yet. He returned to the legislature in 1897, demanding the state protect “innocent white students” and shut down the school. An attempt was made to amend Sheats’ law, but it failed to pass the state Senate.
The impact of Sheats’ efforts had lasting effects, as fewer whites enrolled at the school the following year. By 1906, Clay County finally built a public school for whites in Orange Park, giving them little incentive to attend the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School. The school suffered another loss in 1911, when the nearby church burned to the ground, possibly due to arson.
When Sheats returned to office in 1913 after an eight-year absence, he immediately began work on yet another law, this one “prohibiting whites from teaching Negroes in Negro schools.” That law passed and the AMA, wary of continued fighting in a hostile southern state, finally closed the school in Dec. 1913.
Sheats’ new law would eventually be defeated by another religious private school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, but the damage was done. An upstart private school that pioneered desegregation in Florida and weathered 22 years of racial hostility had succumbed, at least in part, to oppression by a hostile politician.
“The American Missionary,” Volume 49, January 1895. (Accessed on Google Play online 8/19/2016): https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=DgrPAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA346 (See page 346-347)
Clay County Archives, “Orange Park Hand School Source Documents” 2011. (Accessed online 8/9/2016): http://archives.clayclerk.com/files/Black%20History%20-%20Orange%20Park%20Normal%20School%20Source%20Documents.pdf
McTammany, Mary Jo, “Clay County Memoirs: Normal School educated former slaves” The Florida Times Union, April 21, 2004. (Accessed online 8/5/2016) http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/042104/nec_15387491.shtml#.V6So-fkrLRY
“Sheats Law Invalid” New York Times, October 23, 1896. (Accessed through the Clay County Archives above. Can also be seen through the New York Times TimesMachine here: http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1896/10/23/108257464.html)
Richardson, Joe M., “The Nest of Vile Fanatics: William N. Sheats and the Orange Park School,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4. April, 1986.
White, Arthur O. White, “William N. Sheats” New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, V. 17: Education. 2011.