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Sunday Favorites: African American Schools in Florida


Mary Bethune-Cookman stands with a line of girls from her school in Daytona in 1905.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

If you want to be a college student in Florida, then you've got it made.

The state boasts dozens of public, private and religious schools, each with their own focus and specific courses of study. If you want to be a doctor, a lawyer or hospitality professional, to name a few, you have the pick of the litter.

Of course, each school has their own proud history, often dating back generations. But, while schools like the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of Miami often take center stage when it comes to higher education in Florida, the state is also home to some of the oldest, and most prestigious, historically black universities in the nation.

For example, mention Tallahassee and it immediately brings to mind the FSU Seminoles, but just down the road at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, or FAMU, home of the Rattlers, the school boasts one of the top law programs in the nation with nearly 40 percent of the 2012 class already employed full time.

But, all of Florida's black colleges started somewhere, and their stories are both interesting and unique.

Bethune-Cookman University

Bethune-Cookman University started as a little girl’s inspiration to learn and read and write.  

Mary Jane McLeod (1875-1955) grew up on a small cotton and rice farm in Maysville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of 17 children; most of her siblings were born into slavery. By the end of her life, she would be known as one of the most prominent, and powerful, African-American of the early twentieth century.


Edward Waters College in Jacksonville as it looked in 1889.

Photo: Florida Memory Project. 

Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod were both former slaves and worked hard to provide for their children. They worked for their previous owners; while Samuel farmed cotton, Patsy would take Mary with her to do “white people’s wash” and put her in the nursery with the other children. The children’s toys fascinated Mary and one day she picked a book from the shelf. As the legend goes, a white child snatched it away from her saying, “black people can’t read!”

From that day forward Mary vowed to get an education. Her parents accommodated her request and she was enrolled in a school, but she had to walk eight miles to get there. At the end of every day, Mary would play teacher and educate her family about what she had learned, as she was the only one who attended school.

Mary’s teacher Emma Jane Wilson became a mentor for her and she arranged for Mary to attend the same secondary she had attended on scholarship. Mary enrolled in Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), from 1883 to 1893. The following year, she attended Dwight L. Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now the Moody Bible Institute), hoping to become a missionary in Africa. However, she was told that she would not be able to go because black missionaries were not needed, so she instead planned to teach.

Mary had several teaching opportunities; she first ran a mission school for prisoners in Palatka, Fla., taught in Augusta, Ga. at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute and was finally transferred to Kendall Institute in Sumter, SC where she met her husband Albertus Bethune. 

In October 1904, Mary opened her own school in Daytona, Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls with $1.50. She rented a small house for $11.00 per month and made benches and desks out of discarded crates and obtaining items through charity. She had six students—five girls aged six to twelve, and her son, Albert.


The school went on to become Bethune-Cookman University and Mary would be recognized as a great American educator and civil rights leader. She even served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was known as "The First Lady of The Struggle” because of her commitment to bettering African Americans. 


All that remained of the AME church was a few pilings after the Great Fire of Jacksonville in 1901.

Photo :Florida Memory Project

Edward Waters College

The oldest African-American college in Florida is Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. The private college was founded in 1866 in order to help freed slaves get an education.

William G. Steward, the first African Methodist Episcopal pastor in the state, originally called the college Brown Theological Institute and established the school to train members of his church. He and Charles H. Pearce, a prominent black politician in the post Civil War era, worked to build the school’s congregation after a period of reconstruction following the Civil War. 

After going through a string of financial difficulties, the school closed during much of the 1870s, reopening in 1883 as East Florida Conference High School. During the next decade and after another name change, the curriculum was expanded and the school finally took on its current name after the third bishop of the AME church, Edward Waters. 

The turn of the century brought on more problems for the institution. In 1901, the original campus was destroyed in the Great Fire of Jacksonville. However, work began on another facility three years later. 

The school was considered a junior college until 1979, when it received accreditation as a four-year college and began awarding students bachelor degrees. 

Today Edward Waters College remains a Christian school, but specializes in liberal arts and athletics. 

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University was founded on Oct. 3, 1887, beginning classes as the State Normal College for Colored Students with a total of fifteen students and two instructors. 

The school started down the road to becoming a full university in 1905 with the creation of the Buckman Act, which gave control of the school to a board of directors instead of the department of education. This same act would also create the University of Florida and Florida State University, and the school officially became known as Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes.

According to the university's website, the school built much of the physical and academic image it still has today between the years of 1924 and 1944. Buildings were erected; more land was purchased; more faculty were hired, courses were upgraded, and accreditation was received from several state agencies. By 1944, the school had 48 buildings, totaled 396 acres of land, and had 812 students and 122 staff members.

It officially became "FAMU" in 1953. By then had more than 1,000 students; and by 1968 the university had created schools of pharmacy, law, nursing and graduate studies. 

It was during the period of 1950 to 1968 that the school experienced its most rapid growth, as millions of dollars of new construction were pumped into the campus. The school became the first black college to become a member of Southern Association of Colleges and enrollment hit 3,500 students while faculty grew to more than 500. 

Following the turbulent 1960s, the school found itself experiencing "unprecedented growth", according to the website, and during the late 70s until the mid 80s, the university grew to eleven schools, while the athletics department saw increased growth.

During the 110th Anniversary Celebration, Florida A&M University was selected by the TIME Magazine-Princeton Review as the 1997-1998 College of the Year.  FAMU was selected from among some of the most prestigious schools in the country to be the first recipient of this honor.


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