Emphasis On Public Education Came Early
written and submitted by: Roger Landers
this article appeared in the Hernando Times Edition of the St. Petersburg Times Monday, November 27, 2006.
Steal not this book For fear of shame For in it wrote the owner's name And God will ask on judgment day Where is that book you stole away? James Durston, Feb. 1, 1846 This note is written on the flyleaf of a book of ciphers and grammar rules found in the 1960s in the personal effects of a retired Hernando County schoolteacher. While it remains unclear what relationship this leather-bound volume might have to education in Hernando, it does remind us of the early emphasis on the schooling of children. The Florida Territorial Legislature recognized the importance of a literate population. It set aside one section (640 acres) of every township for the support of education. By 1845, the desire for a state system of common schools prevailed, providing a "good English education" for all children. Support came from the sale or lease of a specified section of state-owned land. The county judge of probate was the de facto superintendent of schools in each county. His responsibility was to report the number of school-age children (ages 6 to 21), request funding and make an annual report. Initially, however, Hernando County families - known to be an independent lot - chose to provide formal education without the help of public funds. Many families of means employed private tutors for their children. One such family was that of Gideon Tyner of Fort Dade (now Dade City). He hired a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune, F.C.M. Boggess, to teach his children in late 1850. Boggess taught for two four-month terms in a small log cabin school. The best known of such school arrangements was that of the Fredrick Lykes family of Old Spring Hill. Lykes employed a young Thomas S. Coogler of South Carolina to teach his children and others living nearby. Coogler taught two terms of school at Spring Hill before returning to South Carolina to study law. In 1857, Hernando had 269 school-age children. That same year, 16 of the state's then-32 counties made no report of common schools to the state superintendent. Hernando was one of the 16. A subscription school opened in the newly established town of Brooksville in 1857. Classes were in Union Baptist Church, where the SunTrust Bank employee parking lot is currently located on W Jefferson Street. In 1858, the Brooksville Academy got a new home next to the church. The two-classroom school brought great pride to the community. But the principal, William E. McCaslan, left the school in October 1860 after passing the Florida Bar examination. When the Civil War broke out, many of the academy's young men volunteered for Confederate service. Shortly thereafter, the school closed. The trustees later sold the building and land. In 1863, with C.T. Jenkins captured and imprisoned in Boston, his wife, Eliza, turned to teaching school at Bayport to support their family. At war's end, teaching the newly freed slaves to read, write and cipher became a priority. Before emancipation, slaves were prohibited by law from receiving any schooling. Even though exceptions did exist, the majority of the former slaves were illiterate. Embracing the importance of literacy for the freedmen, the state in 1866 established a system of "Common Schools for Negroes." In Hernando, the Brooksville School Society organized a school in 1867, and Morgan Chapman of Jacksonville became teacher of the Brooksville Colored School. By the time the Freedmen's Bureau was operational in Hernando, the school was in trouble and could not pay the teacher. All male freedmen between the ages of 16 and 45 were required to pay a $2 tax to support education. In September 1867, the school closed for lack of funds; Chapman left the county and went back to Jacksonville. In early 1868, another school opened with James H. Roberts as teacher. He was a disabled Army veteran (U.S. Colored Troops) and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. He found himself at odds with the trustees - all Baptist - of the Brooksville Colored School. Although he tried hard, at one time having 45 students, the lack of funds also caused that school to fail. In May 1868, A.T. Frierson sold land on S Lemon Avenue to the trustees of the colored school. With support of the Freedmen's Bureau, a building for the school was constructed. The school also doubled as the home of the Bethlehem Baptist Church. The new Florida Constitution of 1868 called for the establishment of free public schools open to all school-age children. The county had to have a board of education and a superintendent, both appointed by the governor. In 1869, the state superintendent requested of probate judge and superintendent P.G. Wall an explanation for the lack of an organized school system in Hernando County. Wall responded that he was not able to organize a board. After Henry Roundtree of New York became superintendent, he too was unable to organize a school board. In 1870, the county had six teachers, all in private schools. Finally, Thomas S. Coogler accepted appointment as superintendent and successfully organized a board on July 5, 1871. The new board reported three schools in Hernando County. The location of two of them is unknown. However, in his 1872 annual report, Coogler writes: "We have but one school in this place (Brooksville), a colored one. ... It is the largest and best-attended school in the county. And is taught by a white southern lady (Mrs. Eliza J. Cary). ... I am convinced that all they (the students) need is half an opportunity, and they will develop as much mental caliber any race." Thus began publicly supported education in Hernando County.
Roger Landers is retired from the Hernando County School District, where for nearly 33 years he was a teacher, principal and district administrator. He is the historian for the county's Heritage Museum, historical adviser to the new Hernando County Historical Advisory Commission and a member of the Florida Historical Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.