The State Normal School for Colored Students was established in 1887 so that blacks could be trained as teachers and return to their communities to educate youth.
The Board of Education went through an intensive search for a president and eventually settled on Thomas De Saille Tucker, an attorney from Pensacola, according to Leedell Neyland’s book “Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University: A Centennial History.”
The book portrays him as an incredibly progressive and visionary leader, who wrung every drop of potential available from the Board of Education, the school and its students.
The college was originally located where Bill’s Bookstore is on Copeland Street today. The house it occupied had no space to accommodate students and pupils from out of town had to stay with local families.
This restricted the number of female students attending the college, as their families were often unwilling to let their daughters live with strangers.
For this reason, Tucker almost immediately began to petition the board to move the school to its current site, where there would be room for dormitories and farmland.
For a black man to come into a newly established school for blacks in the late 1800s and immediately request that it be moved to a 30-acre site where new buildings would have to be erected seems uncommon to me.
According to Neyland, he later worked hard to have a nursing school built so female students would have the option of another field to go into. When new regulations required him to collect fees from out of state students, he did his best to circumvent the policies. Tucker withheld portions of teachers’ salaries during the school year because he knew they were notorious for not saving enough money.
When some white officials complained that blacks had no need for academic education and should stick to learning manual trades, Tucker was emphatic that his students should receive a well-rounded education grounded in literature, mathematics and science.
He also wanted an industrial department so that students could become skilled artisans and contribute to the economy of the state.
In 1893, William N. Sheats took the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Neyland said that Sheats was a white supremacist that was very critical of Tucker and his institution throughout his tenure.
Neyland also said that from 1896 on, Tucker had to continuously defend himself from Sheat’s accusations. Sheats worked to reduce Tucker’s authority and took much of his control over teacher hiring and budget expenditures.
Eventually, Tucker was driven out by Sheats’ racist efforts in 1901. Neyland’s book wonders if more diplomacy on Tucker’s part would have allowed him to stay at the university and promote its growth.
Tucker was right in making his stand and not compromising his beliefs. If he had conformed to Sheats’ desires, he would not have been able to continue making great achievements for the school.
Mackenzie Turberville is a senior journalism student from Lake City, Fla. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org