William N. Sheats was, in many ways, the father of Florida’s public school system. He was also an ardent racist who declared war on a racially integrated private school in North Florida, which he referred to as a “nest of vile fanatics” in an episode that subjected the state to national ridicule.
But perhaps the most fascinating — and troubling — aspect of this complicated figure is this: By the standards of his time, he was a moderate.
Several times during his long run as the leader of Florida’s public education system, he faced threats to his political career because, in the view of his opponents, he wasn’t racist enough.
Sheats was Florida’s first elected education superintendent, serving from 1893 to 1904, and again 1913 until his death in 1922. He worked to modernize Florida’s uniform system of public schools and helped draft the first statewide curriculum. He reformed teacher training and certification, requiring educators to pass exams to prove subject-area mastery. He worked to ensure more public high schools were accredited, and helped pass the state’s compulsory-attendance law in 1919. During his tenure, Florida had one of the best-funded public school systems among southern states and had more accredited high schools per capita than any other state in the region.
But Sheats was also a racist. He once declared access to education would “make the vast number of idle, absolutely worthless negroes industrious and self-supporting.”
He attended the state’s Constitutional Convention of 1885, hoping to correct what he saw as mistakes of the previous constitution. The new constitution of 1885 would strip centralized control from the Republican “carpetbaggers” and devolve power toward locally elected Democrats. The constitution also outlawed interracial marriage and instituted a poll tax to disenfranchise black voters.
Chairing the education committee, Sheats authored Article XII Section 12, which read: “White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school, but impartial provision shall be made for both.” It would remain in the state constitution until 1968.
Segregation had been left out of the state’s first post-Civil War constitution, but to Sheats, the foundation of democracy and good public schools, especially for blacks, required racial segregation. “Any effort to enforce mixed education of the races would forever destroy the public school system at one swoop,” he wrote.
But it was Sheats who caused the only major split among Democrats at the constitutional convention. He proposed segregated public schools for black children. Other members of his party also supported segregation, but they opposed the notion that taxes should support the education of black children at all.
John Temple Graves, an opponent of Sheats and editor of the Jacksonville Daily Florida Herald, “thundered that the ‘school crank’ was trying to confiscate the property of the state in order to educate Negroes,” according to an account by historian Edward C. Williamson.
Despite heavy opposition to educating black Floridians at the constitutional convention, Sheats’ dual system of segregated – but supposedly uniform – public schools would pass by a vote of 59-32.
The divide at the convention reflected a split in Florida’s white-dominated, one-party politics. It was also a harbinger of political attacks Sheats soon would face.
New political enemies
Although Sheats supported keeping white and black taxes separate so that whites didn’t pay for black schools, he faced a new round of attacks when he published statistics showing that black Floridians paid more in school support taxes than they got in return.
He also sponsored schools to educate and train black teachers, even though he relentlessly opposed whites teaching blacks, and advocated prohibitions that passed into law twice.
Sheats’ rivals assailed him in early 1903, when he invited Booker T. Washington to speak during a convention of leading Florida educators. The idea of a black man lecturing white leaders outraged some powerful Floridians. State Sen. H.H. McCreary, the founder of the Florida Press Association and editor of the Gainesville Daily Sun, seized on the “folly” as an opportunity to take out his political rival by stoking the prejudices of the “rural Florida cracker.”
McCreary recruited William M. Holloway, Sheats’ own friend and protégé from Alachua County, to run for state school superintendent.
Sheats had also made an enemy of the Florida Education Association (FEA) when he attempted to invalidate the expired teaching certificate of Clementine Hampton, the vice president of the FEA.
Seeking revenge, Hampton successfully blocked Sheats from being able to nominate Florida’s statewide director at the annual National Education Association (NEA) meeting in Boston by convincing northern members that Sheats was a racist who worked to undermine black education in the south.
But back in Florida, she helped Holloway attack Sheats as a friend of blacks.
According to historian Authur O. White, Hampton overheard Sheats urging Nathan B. Young, a black educator and president of Florida A&M University, to speak out against her accusations during the NEA’s meeting. The conversation would later be used against Sheats, as Hampton furnished Holloway’s campaign with “affidavits, articles and pamphlets claiming that Sheats ‘did persuade, beg and coax a coal-black negro’ to denounce a ‘Southern white woman’ before the NEA in Boston.”
In May 1904, Hollway and McCreary published 40,000 pamphlets detailing the Booker T. Washington and Clementine Hampton incidents and claiming that Sheats would “forever establish the equality of the races.”
The Gainesville Daily Sun accused Sheats of being a Republican and supporting “negrophyllism.” The campaign to smear Sheats as a “friend of the Negro” worked. Sheats went on to win only 11 of Florida’s 45 counties. He lost the Democratic primary by more than 4,000 votes.
After an eight-year absence, Sheats returned to office in 1913 and promptly set to work outlawing whites from teaching blacks in private schools again. The new law helped shutter Florida’s only desegregated private school, Orange Park Normal & Industrial, and resulted in the arrest of three Catholic sisters in 1916.
But at the same time, Sheats felt the public education of blacks had been sorely neglected in his absence and sought state funds to hire a State Agent to help him report on and supervise schools for black students.
Separate and unequal
The public-school system he oversaw was anything but equal – or uniform.
Thanks to the constitutional prohibition on desegregated schools, Florida’s uniform system of public schools was really a parallel system of segregated schools. From 1885 until well into the 1960s, state law required separate attendance zones for blacks and whites, even if they lived within the same neighborhood. Segregation in public schools became “so entrenched that school superintendents were required to keep separately the books used in white and Negro schools.”
Funding wasn’t truly uniform either, as districts with large black populations received less funding from the state. In the late 19th century, teachers were paid at a rate of $4.42 annually per white student, but only $1.42 annually for each black student. By 1909, Florida was spending twice as much on administrative expenses and seven times as much on facilities and supplies for white schools as it did for black schools.
Sheats’ stringent teacher certification requirements and a prohibition on whites teaching blacks in public schools created further inequalities for black students, who found themselves with a shortage of qualified instructors. By 1924, just two years after Sheats’ death, the certification and exam process left fewer than one out of every four black teachers with a valid Florida teaching certificate.
At the turn of the 20th century, Florida’s locally and democratically controlled public schools failed to adequately meet the needs of black students. The system of uniform public schools founded by Sheats was ultimately a system of separate and unequal schools.
During this time, a small number of private and community schools, many of them supported by religious aid societies, emerged to educate a disenfranchised black population. These groups defied the laws of the state, and for their efforts, they were attacked by a democratically elected legislature and even arrested.
The regime of segregation would last 83 years before it was finally struck down and replaced, but in many parts of Florida, children in segregated schools still struggle to overcome the legacy of systemic racism enacted through democratic control.
We can draw many lessons from this history. It should chasten people who espouse a mythic belief in the superiority of democratic and locally controlled public schools. Alternative educational arrangements – including faith-based and private ones – have a tradition just as rich. The legacy of Jim Crow, and the educators who resisted it, illustrates why these institutions can be vital to a free society.
Berk, Paul William, “Dogmas Accepted as Devine”: The Impact of Progressive Reforms in FLorida’s Public Schools (Ph.D. Dissertation), Florida State University Libraries, 2005. (Accessed online 10/20/2016): http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:175898/datastream/PDF/view
McTammany, Mary Jo, “Clay County Memoirs: Normal School educated former slaves” The Florida Times Union, April 21, 2004. (Accessed online 8/5/2016) http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/042104/nec_15387491.shtml#.V6So-fkrLRY
Mims v. Duval County School Board, 1971. (Accessed online 8/5/2016) http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/329/123/2596160/
Richardson, Joe M., “The Nest of Vile Fanatics: William N. Sheats and the Orange Park School,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4. April, 1986.
“Sheats Law Invalid” New York Times, October 23, 1896. (Accessed through the Clay County Archives above. Can also be seen through the New York Times TimesMachine here: http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1896/10/23/108257464.html)
“The American Missionary,” Volume 49, January 1895. (Accessed on Google Play online 8/19/2016): https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=DgrPAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA346 (See page 346-347)
White, Arthur O., “Race, Politics and Education: The Sheats-Holloway Election Controversy, 1903-1904” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3., Jan. 1975.
White, Arthur O. White, “William N. Sheats” New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, V. 17: Education. 2011.
Williamson, Edward C. “The Constitutional Convention of 1885,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Oct. 1962.