This week we will skip forward a bit and leave the system and enter the schools of our ancestors. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents in Florida attended those famous one-room schoolhouses. Generally, this meant all of the students were in the same room, studying materials for their own level; and the older students helped the teacher with the younger students. Many of us, because we grew up with school for nine months in each of twelve years, think these early schools were similar to what we experienced. They weren’t in many ways.
In the early years, school was voluntary and if you read the previous post you may have noticed that the student was counted if they attended at least 4 months. That generally allowed these little household workers to assist on the farm and still attend school. If you meander through the censuses after 1870, you will notice that the number of months a student attended was recorded. I would suggest picking an ancestor who was a child during the late 19th and early 20th century, finding the censuses they are in and see if they attended in the previous year and how many months they attended. You might notice some or all of the following: 1) Students could generally read before they could write, 2) One or more sons might not attend because they were needed on the farm, 3) Girls did attend relatively early in the development of Florida schools on a par with the boys.
Early in Florida’s schools, textbooks were bought by the student’s parents and often what they could find, so students came with a variety of textbooks. That had to have been a challenge for the teacher and the students. Subjects in the late 19th century, at least for the larger schools, included: reading, writing, elementary arithmetic, spelling, geography, U. S. and Florida history, and physiology and hygiene. In some of the more established and better funded schools there would sometimes be physical and political geography, bookkeeping, English grammar and composition. By the end of the 19th century there was a push for all schools to include agriculture and manual crafts for boys and cooking and food preservation for girls. These morphed into Shop and Home Ec by the time I came along.
Textbooks did become standardized and eventually provided by the school system. See here for a textbook from 1904. The McGuffey series of Readers and Primer were often used as textbooks. These placed a heavy emphasis on articulation and accenting and emphasizing words in reading or reciting out loud (see McGuffey Readers here). I now understand why Mabel Peaden, schoolteacher at Blackman and classmate of my grandmother, was so fond of standing up and reciting poetry and LONG dissertations at church homecomings.
The other big difference between then and now for the students was that public education, available to all, only went through the 8th grade. High school was a late addition to public education in Florida. In the late 19th and early 20th century, high school was separate and not everyone could attend. The main ones in the panhandle that I could find references to were: Westville High School, Westville (1891) and Escambia High School, Pensacola (1886).
Early on in Florida’s history, school could take place in a house in the community or another public/private building such as a Masonic building. It appears that school buildings began consistently appearing in the panhandle after 1885. Because traveling great distances would have likely discouraged attendance for 4 months, schools began springing up (and was encouraged) in every township. If there wasn’t enough support for that, children could go live with family or friends that were closer to a school. If you spend time with census records you will occasionally find children who aren’t part of the family but a little research may show them related. There were a number of reasons for farming out children for periods of time, school was likely one of them.
By the end of the 19th century, schools were better attended and would-be teachers had Normal Colleges available for teaching certificates. Schools for black and white students were separate, but I’ve found in my reviews of census records for the panhandle that the black children seem to have been more likely to have attended school in the previous year, than white children, especially in rural areas. Funding for school buildings and maintenance had improved significantly by the 1890s, textbooks were specified and available and teachers received some standard education before certification. Two of these teacher schools available to would-be white teachers from the panhandle were the State Normal College in DeFuniak Springs (1887-1905) and the Florida Normal Institute in Madison in the early 20th century.
At the same time that the State Normal College in DeFuniak Springs was started for white teachers, Florida also began a teachers college in Tallahassee, known as the State Normal College for Colored Students, to train black teachers. This was a significant step forward, since prior to this, black teachers had little availability of standarized education for the teaching profession.
Schools began to be consolidated in the 1920s and 30s. Populations had grown and the cost of maintaining schools was becoming more expensive. The small, community schools gave way to bigger facilities, separation of grades and the addition of 4 more years of compulsory education, though you could still “drop out”. Subjects became more varied, even while the basics were emphasized.
My great-grandfather was a teacher, William Franklin King attended the State Normal College and graduated in 1892 with his Licentiate of Instruction. He came back to Oak Grove in what would become Okaloosa County, Florida and taught school at the Oak Grove school until it burned down in 1923. For a few more years he taught school in the second-floor of the Yellow River Baptist Church until the children from Oak Grove were sent to Blackman to school and a few years later to Escambia Farms. Grandpa King taught all of his children and a couple of his grandchildren before he “retired”. The Florida Department of Education tried to send him a small pension check for all of his years of teaching. He returned it with a note that he hadn’t done anything for the money so he was returning it. My how things have changed.
These two sets of photos are dear to me. The first one is the class of 1914 in Oak Grove and includes my grandmother, Alma King, and a number of her younger siblings. This would have been taken just a few months before she agreed to marry my grandfather and they eloped. It is the only photo I’ve been able to locate for the school as I’ve been researching the history of Oak Grove. It is an old newspaper photo so the quality is poor. Since, according to the Memories of a Schoolhouse article, Mabel Peaden had an original photo, I have to wonder what her family did with the piles of stuff she accumulated before her passing. The second photo is a few years after the Oak Grove students were sent to Blackman. It includes several of my grandmother’s youngest siblings and several of my mother’s older sisters (One is missing. Aunt Marie was so shy I’m betting she found some reason to stay home on this day.) and most of the rest are related in some way. I am not sure who put the names to the last one (the list of names was in the piles of miscellaneous papers with the Yellow River Baptist Church records and the original photo is in the possession of the granddaughter of my great-aunt, Ovella King, who is in the photo) but all that I know from other photos appears correct. If you can name any of those where there is a blank, please contact me.
So, we come to the end of our schoolhouse journey. I hope it was worth the trip.
Until next time!
- History of the Public School Education in Florida by Thomas Everette Cochran, 1921.
- From Cabin to Campus: A History of the Okaloosa School System by Nancy M. Kenaston.
- Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl F. Kaestle.
- Florida Memory some of the above photographs are on their site.
- Fort Walton Beach Playground Daily News, “Memories of a Schoolhouse Still Shine After 2 Generations”, by Bruce Koehler, 24 Feb 1985, page 2B