Far from the public eye, a North Florida private school for black students survived for 83 years against the odds.
From its humble beginnings as a log cabin in 1868 until its closure in 1951, Fessenden Academy endured thanks to the grit of the students and the entrepreneurial verve of its leaders. Over the decades it fought to preserve its academic identity, won praise for the achievement of its students, weathered the mysterious disappearance of a key leader and survived to become one of the longest-lived educational institutions of an era when missionary aid societies and wealthy industrialists swooped in to fill a void left by the public school system.
Its achievements were all the more remarkable given that a crucial part of its mission — the education of black children — was not only neglected by the public, but made difficult by politicians seeking to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy. And yet, it successfully courted the support of the some of the same public officials who oppressed similar institutions during the Jim Crow era.
Florida's state constitution of 1885 erased the gains black Floridians made following the Civil War and constructed a single-party state built on the idea of white supremacy.
Although it’s not always considered part of traditional Dixie, racial tensions ran high in Florida and life for black residents was harsh. According to Historian David H. Jackson Jr., there were more lynchings per person in Florida between 1880 and 1930 than anywhere else in the South.
White residents, hostile to the idea of using tax dollars to provide an education for black students, were slow to build public schools for the black community. They fought to keep tax dollars from black and white residents segregated.
Florida's first elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, William N. Sheats, wrote racial segregation into the state's constitution. Over the course of his tenure, he forbade public schools from hiring teachers educated at racially integrated colleges, labored to shut down Florida's first desegregated private school and ordered the arrest of three Catholic sisters for the crime of teaching black students.
More than a third of the 20th century would pass before a majority of black students in Florida had access to a public school. Religious aid societies like the American Missionary Association (AMA) and wealthy benefactors stepped into that void to provide black students an education while the political majority would not.
This is the story of Fessenden Academy, a private school in rural Marion County, Florida, that educated black students for 83 years and became the last secondary school in the United States operated by the AMA.
From humble beginnings
Union School, as it was originally called, began in a humble log-cabin constructed entirely by local black families and financed by Thomas B. Ward in 1868. Continue Reading →