The Buckman Act and the Consolidation of Florida Universities

Buckman Political Cartoon Jacksonville Sun
Political Cartoon about the Buckman Act from the Jacksonville Sun December 30,1905

Few things shaped the long history of the University of Florida like the signing of the Buckman Act on June 5, 1905. The legislation, authored by Congressman Henry H. Buckman, consolidated the numerous (white) public colleges and seminaries in the state into the University of Florida and Florida Female College (now Florida State University) as well as maintained the State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students (now Florida A&M) and the Institute for Blind, Deaf, and Dumb. Because the bill fundamentally restructured higher education within the state and impacted many communities which housed smaller institutions, the Buckman Act is covered extensively in our papers. Samuel Proctor and Wright Langley, authors of Gator History: A Pictorial History of the University of Florida are correct in pointing out that “most newspapers favored consolidation, although there was opposition in communities like Bartow that seemed likely to lose their institutions” (Proctor and Langley 24). This post will look at the manner in which the Buckman Act was discussed during the 1905 legislative session. Notably, we’ll look at the Weekly True Democrat from Tallahassee, which supported the bill and also reported opinions printed in other papers in the state, and the Gainesville Daily Sun which, while initially against the act, warmed up to it considerably once Gainesville’s name began to be mentioned as the possible location of the University of Florida.

The history of higher education in Florida can be traced back to January 22, 1851 when “the Legislature passed a bill authorizing establishment of two seminaries, one in east Florida and the other in west Florida” (Proctor and Langley 18). In the wake of the organization of these two institutions, other small state schools opened throughout the remainder of the 19th century. By the early 20th century, there were eight total public colleges and institutes. At the beginning of the 1905 legislative session, some officials were of the opinion that the proliferation of these unregulated institutions was placing an unreasonable financial burden on the state. These institutions competed for students, which, in turn, allowed them to ask for more financial support from the state. The result of this competition led to “interschool rivalry” and the fear among many was that “Florida had more schools than it could afford to maintain, and without change, none would be able to achieve preeminence” (Proctor and Langley 23). This attitude is reflected in the May 19th issue of the Weekly True Democrat from Tallahassee. While the editors are “doubtful” that the bill can be enacted, they nonetheless state that its very existence is “an indication that the taxpayers of the State have become weary of witnessing successive Legislatures fritter away their hard-earned money in wasteful efforts to build up local schools for the sole benefit of ambitious local communities.”

The goal of Buckman’s bill was threefold: it intended to condense the number of state funded institutions of higher learning, place the consolidated institutions under the authority of the governor-appointed of the Board of Control, and create gender segregated schools for white students. The bill gained popularity and ultimately replaced the “Regent’s Bill” proposed by Senator Stockton and Congressman Wall which supported oversight without school closures and said nothing about gender segregation. While there is simply not enough space to discuss the gendered aspect of the Buckman Act, an article by Shira Birnbaum on the topic notes that “most of these state-financed public institutions-like their private and locally supported counterparts-had been made coeducational before the turn of the century” (Birnbaum 225).

Regent Bill
Gainesville Daily Sun April 18, 1905

So what do papers from the time have to say about the Buckman bill? In short, quite a bit. The legislation was one of the more publicly discussed bills of the 1905 legislative session. A search for the term in Florida Chronicling America papers for only the year 1905 yields an impressive number of articles from across the state, often occupying prime front-page space.

The Weekly True Democrat from Tallahassee is one of our papers that frequently reported on the university issue while the bill was being considered, during the contestation of the law at the state Supreme Court, and throughout the implementation process. There are two potential reasons for the coverage. First, the Tallahassee paper features a considerable amount of political news simply because Tallahassee is the state capital and seat of state governance. Additionally, as the host of both Florida State College and the State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students, citizens of Tallahassee would be affected should either college close. Fears aside, the Weekly True Democrat unabashedly supported the bill. Early in the session, the Weekly True Democrat addressed this issue saying as “much as we deprecate the arbitrary abolishment of some of the institutions thus affected by this bill, and especially our own State College, we feel…that the time has come to cut of the wasting of the people’s money…and if the enactment of the Buckman bill is the only means of accomplishing this purpose, we are in favor of it.”

True Democrat Pro Buckman
Weekly True Democrat May 19, 1905

Perhaps more useful to individuals interested in learning more about public opinion and the Buckman bill is the fact that the Weekly True Democrat regularly included columns containing snippets from other newspapers in the state about certain hot cultural topics. From these columns, we can see the tension that existed surrounding the issue in the language used by supporters and detractors of the bill. For example, the Perry Topics is reported by the Democrat as saying “This is the best bill that could have been passed. The measly little schools were draining the State, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and doing less good than a third grade school in the rural districts.” The Live Oak Democrat echoed similar sentiment saying “the people, we doubt not, would be better satisfied with two or three high-class educational institutions adequately supported by the State than half a dozen or more always ‘on the bum’ through no fault of their own…” On the other side of the issue was the DeFuniak Breeze which was reported as saying “Should the Governor sign it, it may be taken almost as an assured fact that the matter will go into the courts and end no one knows where.” DuFuniak, Florida, it should be noted, was the location of the White Normal School that would be eliminated if the Buckman bill passed. While the majority of the reports in the Weekly True Democrat from other papers are supportive of consolidation, editorial approval for the bill was not universal across the state.

Like DeFuniak, Gainesville (the current home of the University of Florida) was concerned that the passage of the Buckman bill would lead to the closure of East Florida Seminary, which had been located in the city since 1866 and vocally opposed the legislation (Proctor and Langley 19). The Gainesville Daily Sun covered the Buckman bill regularly, including running a story about a committee who ventured to Tallahassee “in the interest of securing if possible the defeat of the famous Buckman bill.” On May 28th, after the bill passed the Senate, the Daily Sun reported that “Senator McCreary made a noble fight against great odds to save East Florida Seminary, but the forces against him and education were too strong.” Clearly, the Gainesville Daily Sun viewed the Buckman Act as something of immense social and cultural importance and framed the issue using the type of rhetoric we often see in reports on issues related to the so-called culture wars today.

Buckman Bill Passed Sun
Gainesville Daily Sun May 28, 1905

As what appeared to be the inevitable passage of the bill loomed, antagonism towards it in the Daily Sun waned due in large part to support around the state to choose Gainesville as the location of the University of Florida, the premier educational institution in this newly organized structure. According to Proctor and Langley, “many Floridians favored Lake City since the University was already established there with several new and modern buildings.” Knowing they faced an uphill battle, “Gainesville launched a major public relations campaign to win statewide support” (Proctor and Langley 25). Knowing that the serving as the home of the university would ultimately be beneficial to the city, the Daily Sun enthusiastically began to support placing the University of Florida in Gainesville.

For obvious reasons, the Daily Sun only ran articles supporting the idea that Gainesville was the best suited location for the university. One such article ran on June 3, 1905 and extensively quotes a June 2nd Tampa Tribune piece about the suitability of Gainesville. This contextualized reprint states “Gainesville is unquestionably the best location in the State for the University, which is the most important proposition. The city is located centrally, both geographically and with respect to population and has everything desirable for the maintenance of the University. It has the school spirit, good water, a healthful climate, good buildings, and is a town without a saloon or a disorderly house, with a standard of morality that makes it an ideal college town.” Nearly a month later on June 29th, the Gainesville Daily Sun re-ran an editorial by Maitland resident S.B. Hill that had been first published in Jacksonville’s Times-Union. This editorial is completely complimentary to Gainesville, framing the city as the people’s choice for the flagship school. In Hill’s opinion, not only is Gainesville a better choice, but the school formerly run in Lake City was rife with “discord, enmity, and factionalism” which, prior to its closure by the Buckman Act, had “interfered with the management of the school.” This led Hill to conclude “we cannot afford to trust the University in a place where local politics, with all its blighting influences, has dared to lay its profanating [sic] hands upon the sacred interests of the State school entrusted to fostering care of the community.”

Gainesville Gets University
Gainesville Daily Sun July 7, 1905

Ultimately, the Board of Control chose Gainesville as the location of the University of Florida on July 6, 1905 in a close 6-4 vote. The same evening, a unanimous vote resulted in the selection of Tallahassee as the location for the Florida Female College. After the successful public relations campaign, the city of Gainesville celebrated their victory. The front page of the Gainesville Daily Sun for the next several days recounts the triumphant vote and reports the city’s response to the news, including an impromptu 51 car parade which met Mayor W.R. Thomas upon his return to the city. This parade included “carriages, buggies and wagons, as well as the bicycles” which “were decorated in the Seminary colors, orange and black, and buttonieres [sic] and lapel streamers were prominent on the persons of all who participated in the parade, as well as ninety-five percent of the people of the city, regardless of age, sex or color.” The front page of the July 10th edition of the paper features a large announcement titled “Our Grateful Thanks” In which the paper, “on behalf of the good people of the city of Gainesville,” expresses its “deep gratitude to the press of the State for the free and generous manner in which it stood by our city in this effort to maintain supremacy as an educational center.” In reflecting on the choice of Gainesville as the home of UF, the paper uses religious language, saying that “a sacred trust has fallen to our city” and that “in whatever position we may be called upon to act, we will ever hold next to Him on high, our duty to these institutions where the minds of our youth are to be molded for the perpetuity of our State and the Nation.” Despite the public celebration, the Gainesville Sun, it seems, viewed the decision of the Board of Control in a more nuanced way, meshing celebration with solemnity and a sense of moral responsibility.

Our Greatful Thanks Gainesville Sun
Gainesville Daily Sun July 10, 1905

Although the Buckman Act established the University of Florida in Gainesville, not everyone, particularly residents of Lake City, was happy with the decision. During the 1906 move of equipment and furnishings from Lake City to Gainesville, a fracas-both physical and legal- ensued, which is also discussed in our papers. That however, is a story for another day. The Buckman Act, enacted June 5, 1905, resulted in the restructuring of higher education in Florida. Discussion of this publicly debated legislative act and stories about the schools that emerged from this reorganization can be found throughout our historical Florida newspapers.

Citations and Additional Sources

Birnbaum, Shira. “Making Southern Belles in Progressive Era Florida: Gender in the Formal and Hidden Curriculum of the Florida Female College.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 16 (2/3 1996): 218-46.

Proctor, Samuel, and Wright Langley. Gator History: A Pictorial History of the University of Florida. Gainesville, FL: South Star Publishing Company, 1986.

University of Florida Foundation. “Henry H. Buckman Hall.” Accessed June 2, 2016. http://uff.ufl.edu/Facilities/facilities.asp?id=67.

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