Monday, July 31, 2017

Florida a haven for writers

Members of the 1158 Literary Society pose for a group photo in 1895 in Orange City, Florida
Members of the 1158 Literary Society pose for a group photo
in Orange City, Fla., in 1895. The 1158 represents the total
of the ages of members. (Credit: State Archives of Florida)
I'm fresh from the wonderful #RWA17, and I’m all about books right now. Reading them, writing, them, talking about writing them …. It’s wonderful to get together with others who share your passion for the printed word. 

Some 2,000 of us gathered for the Romance Writers of America 2017 conference at Disney World in Orlando. I took for granted the interconnectivity: presentations, get-togethers, an app, live stream, downloadable handouts, social media, and the pre-conference logistical emails. How did writers in pioneer days network? Planning a conference by postal service and telephone seems fraught with delays and missed connections.

One thing writers did was form literary colonies. Florida was and still is a popular vacation and relocation destination among authors. Notable colonies and writers’ residences existed in St. Augustine, Winter Park and Key West. Is there a Western reader alive who doesn’t know Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West in the 1920s and 1930s? 

I'm surprised at just how many writers called Florida home at some point in their lives. You will be too, by the evidence in the dated but historically valuable The Book Lovers Guide to Florida (Kevin McCarthy, Ed., Pineapple Press, 1992). It’s just under 500 pages, and it takes the reader on a literary tour of the Sunshine State. You’ll find writers famous and forgotten, along with occasional tidbits about what drew them here. I like this 1926 quote by Rex Beach - an author I'm not familiar with: "Florida is the only pioneer state left in the Union." (Book Lovers Guide, 160-161). I wish more women and more ethnically and racially diverse writers were featured, or, I should say, I wish more diversity existed at the time. The guide's authors appear to have done a comprehensive job in their early internet era, when digitized records weren't yet available. 

No matter where writers gathered in Florida in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they did so without the benefit of air conditioning. Some lived here only during winter. Others were native Southerners accustomed to the climate. Some chose location carefully, such as in Key West where ocean breezes are a part of daily life. The presence of authors wasn’t so much a coordinated effort as it was a loose collaboration and shared recognition of pleasant working conditions.

Writers felt at peace in Florida in earlier years. Many weren’t recognized, or were given privacy if they were recognized. Fans may have heard them read at formal presentations. But readers, for the most part, stayed active with books through forming libraries and book clubs and especially literary societies. People couldn't hop online and download a a title, or make a quick trip to the nearest bookstore. 

The mention of bookstores brings me to a sad note about Book Lovers Guide, one which illustrates the book’s 25-year-old age. A 15-page appendix lists about 450 bookstores in Florida, many independent. Today, I sometimes wonder if there are 450 independent brick-and-mortar bookstores remaining in the entire United States.

Long live books.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

$1.50 and a Dream

Historic photo of Mary McLeod Bethune at the front of a line of students, early 1900s.
Students line up behind Mary McLeod Bethune in
Daytona Beach in this historic public-domain photo.
 Photo source: State Archives of Florida
July is the birth anniversary month of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955). I assume everyone knows the educator, activist and political advisor to presidents, because she was one of the most famous women of her day. If you don't, you should.

Her life and legacy are too large to cover in a blog post. My blog is about daily life in earlier times. This post's focus is on Mrs. (later Dr.) Bethune's early days in Daytona Beach, when she famously started what is now Bethune-Cookman University with $1.50 and five students in 1904. Sounds like she simply started teaching. It was anything but simple.

The daughter of former slaves "dared to defy the caste system," writes her granddaughter Dr. Evelyn Bethune in a family memoir, Bethune: Out of the darkness into the light of Freedom. Daytona Beach was strictly segregated. African-Americans weren't allowed on the beachside unless they were working. The new schoolhouse was a shack, and Mrs. Bethune and her son, Albert, raised the $1.50 needed for rent by selling sandwiches and pies.

(You can find her sweet potato pie recipe in the October 2015 issue of the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation's newsletter, The Legendary Retreat. It's on Page 4.)

While wealthier residents penned letters in ink on stationary, the five students of the new Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, and Albert Bethune, scrounged for writing implements. Dr. Bethune writes that they "crushed elderberries to use as ink." Also, "The charred splinters of burned logs were substituted for pencils." Butcher paper and paper bags served as writing surfaces. 

As the school grew, Mrs. Bethune hosted fundraisers, courted wealthy winter residents, and searched for land to buy. The only thing available - or so she was told - was property at the town dump. She sailed forward. 

By 1919, Mrs. Bethune was profiled in the book Women of Achievement by the then-dean of Morehouse College, Benjamin Brawley. He writes of the early days at the permanent site:
By means of concerts and festivals the first payment of five dollars was made on the present site, then an old dump-pile. With their own hands the teacher and the pupils cleared away much of the rubbish, and from the first they invited the cooperation of the people around them by lending a helping hand in any way they could, by 'being neighborly.' 
The student population had grown to almost 200 by 1919. As the years went on, Mrs. Bethune persevered through challenges and obstacles that included visits by the Klu Klux Klan. In one famous incident, she ushered her students into one building and sang hymns with them as klansmen gathered outside. The men's identities were hidden behind hoods, as usual. Dr. Bethune notes in her family memoir that no one was harmed that night.

Mrs. Bethune was a woman of tremendous faith, writes her granddaughter. She was strong-willed, determined, and willing to work hard for her dream of helping others. This post touches on only one small portion of her wide-ranging life. Visit her house, which is a National Historic Landmark. Learn more about her. She'll inspire you.