William N. Sheats for the Higgy

William N. Sheats, Florida Superintendent of Public Instruction

(Guest Post by Patrick Gibbons)

William N. Sheats was Florida’s very first elected superintendent of public instruction, serving from 1893 to 1904 and again from 1913 until his death in 1922.

As the state’s leading educator, Sheats worked tirelessly to modernize Florida’s education system. He drafted the first statewide curriculum, reformed teacher training and required teachers to pass exams to prove subject-area mastery. He passed the state’s compulsory-attendance law in 1919 and made Florida’s public school system one of the best funded among southern states.

Contemporaries called him the “father of Florida’s public school system.”

As a chair of the education committee during Constitutional Convention of 1885, Sheats nearly caused panic among Democrats when he proposed allowing taxes to support the creation of common schools for black students. Thirty-two members of his own party voted against him. He invited Booker T. Washington to speak before white educators and helped secure public funds for the American Missionary Association’s Fesseden Academy, a college and career preparatory school in rural Florida. Sheats even lost his re-election in 1903 after Florida Education Association Vice President Clementine Hampton, along with the editor of the Gainesville Sun, smeared him as a “Friend of the Negro.”

One can argue that black students may have been worse-off without Sheats as the state superintendent, but the Higgy is not about recognizing the worst or most evil human being. For all the good he may have tried to accomplish, Sheats’ paternalistic racism left lasting scars.

Education, Sheats believed, would “make the vast number of idle, absolutely worthless negroes industrious and self-supporting.”

Sheats enshrined segregation into Florida’s Constitution of 1885, personally writing Article XII, Section 12 which states:

“White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school, but impartial provision shall be made for both.”

It would remain in Florida’s constitution until 1968.

Sheats fervently believed in racial segregation. As he saw it, “any effort to enforce mixed education of the races would forever destroy the public school system in one swoop.”

Fearing teachers might sway impressionable young minds, Sheats used the power of his office to outlaw hiring teachers trained at racially integrated northern colleges. He also outlawed white teachers from educating black students in public schools. The combination of strict certification requirements, a ban on white teachers educating black students, and a rule preventing teachers trained at integrated colleges meant many public schools for black students with a shortage of teachers. By 1924, two years after his death, the rules he left in place meant only 1 out of every 4 black teachers were state certified.

When Sheats learned of Orange Park Normal & Industrial School, a racially integrated private school operating outside of Jacksonville, he lashed out, calling the school a “social and moral blotch,” and a “vile encroachment upon our social and moral system.” With the constitution mandating racial segregation only in public schools, Sheats lobbied the legislature to pass a bill outlawing whites from educating black and white students within the same building.

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.

With the law passed, Sheats ordered the arrest of the school principal, three patrons, five teachers and even the local minister. In October 1896, a judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida tossed out the law on a technicality and Sheats went to work trying to pass a new law. He wouldn’t succeed until after returning to office in 1913. Known as “Sheats Law” the state of Florida now banned “white persons from teaching Negroes in Negro schools.” The law also prohibited black teachers from educating white students.

Facing declining enrollment, attacks from the KKK, wariness over legal expenses and threats of arrest, Orange Park Normal & Industrial School closed its doors for good. After two decades, Sheats had finally succeeded in shuttering Florida’s first and only racially integrated school. A Catholic school under the leadership of 34-year old Bishop Michael Joseph Curley stepped up to fight the law. When Sheats asked Bishop Curley to remove white teachers from the school he refused and vowed to fight the law all the way to the Supreme Court.

Arrests wouldn’t happen until April 1916 when Gov. Park Trammell, at the instance of Sheats, ordered the arrest of three Catholic sisters who taught at St. Benedict the Moore School in St. Augustine, Fla. They were charged with “unlawfully teaching negroes in a negro school.” The arrest of the three sisters attracted national attention, but it also forced black private schools throughout the state to temporarily cease operations or risk arrest.

Fortunately, the case was resolved quickly. On May 20, 1916, Judge George Cooper Gibs ruled the “Sheats Law” unconstitutional, declaring,

“Has a white teacher any the less right to sell his services to negro pupils than a white doctor to negro patients, or a white lawyer to negro clients, or a white merchant as a right to sell his goods to negro customers, and vice versa?”

Sheats enshrined segregation into Florida’s constitution and fathered a system of uniform public schools that were ultimately a system of separate and unequal schools. From 1885 until well into the 1960s, Florida’s public-school system required separate attendance zones for white and black students, even if they lived in the same neighborhood. Segregation became “so entrenched that school superintendents were required to keep separately the books used in white and Negro schools.” Even the tax dollars used for white and black schools could not comingle.

Although he dared to fund education for black students when many contemporaries of his time would not, he ultimately created and enforced a regime of racial segregation and inequality that lasted 83 years. For that, he deserves the dishonor of the Higgy.

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