Virgil Hawkins and the Fight to Integrate the University of Florida Law School

On May 13, 1949, a forty-three year old man from Lake County named Virgil Darnell Hawkins received a letter from the University of Florida Law School rejecting his application because he was African-American.  Hawkins refused to accept the prejudiced decision without a fight, and promptly filed a lawsuit against the Florida Board of Control in 1950. His legal battle would carry on for nine years, laying the foundation for integrating graduate and professional schools in Florida.

Portrait of Virgil Darnell Hawkins (circa 1960s).

Portrait of Virgil Darnell Hawkins (circa 1960s).

Despite the larger civil rights victory, Hawkins emerged from the ordeal partially defeated as he never gained admission to the institution he considered “one of the finest law schools in the country.” The case of Virgil Hawkins v. Board of Control brought Florida into the national school desegregation conversation, serving as an antecedent to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Furthermore, Hawkins’ ordeal underscores the tenacity with which segregation advocates fought the drive for an integrated university system, some even going so far as to suggest that such a change would incite “public mischief.”

College of Law buildings at the University of Florida (circa 1950s).

College of Law buildings at the University of Florida (circa 1950s).

Before Virgil Hawkins took his stand, there was no law school for African-Americans in Florida. Rather than fund a separate institution in Florida or permit African-Americans to attend an existing school with whites, the state instituted a law in 1945 to provide scholarships for select African-American students to study at segregated law schools outside the state. When Virgil Hawkins refused to accept that alternative, the Board of Control approved plans to open a segregated law school at Florida A&M College. By 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on two related cases, Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma, professing the inherent inequality of segregated graduate institutions. Despite these rulings, the Florida court still refused to admit Hawkins, and would continue to refuse even after the so-called Brown II decree issued by the Supreme Court in 1955 to clarify the original Brown decision. Hawkins persisted in his fight against the state’s segregationist position, but more challenges were on the way. In 1958, the Board of Control established a new minimum score on the law school entry exam for incoming students, setting the admission threshold fifty points above Hawkins’ 1956 score. As a result, Hawkins was officially denied not because of his race, but rather because he was disqualified by the new rules regarding test scores.  Later that summer, federal district judge Dozier DeVane mandated that all qualified applicants be admitted to graduate and professional schools in Florida regardless of race.

Judge Dozier DeVane, who ruled that qualified applicants had to be admitted to law and graduate programs regardless of race, stands at right in this photo, along with Harrold G. Carswell (center) and an unknown man at left (1953).

Judge Dozier DeVane, who ruled that qualified applicants had to be admitted to law and graduate programs regardless of race, stands at right in this photo, along with Harrold G. Carswell (center) and an unknown man at left (1953).

Nine years after the initial integration suit, African-American veteran George H. Starke, not Virgil Hawkins, enrolled at the University of Florida Law School in September 1958 without incident. As for Virgil Hawkins, he eventually received his law degree in New England, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977. He resigned in 1985 following complaints about his practice.

Virgil D. Hawkins speaks with supporters while on recess during his disciplinary case before the Florida Supreme Court (1983).

Virgil D. Hawkins speaks with supporters while on recess during his disciplinary case before the Florida Supreme Court (1983).

Virgil Hawkins’ case is an excellent example of how the Civil Rights Movement played out in the courtrooms of Florida as much as it did at lunch counters, public beaches, and city buses. The legal battles fought by Hawkins and others laid the groundwork for an integrated education system for all of Florida.

Florida proudly joins the rest of the United States in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. For more information about events commemorating the Civil Rights Movement, see our Events Calendar.

 

The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s earliest and most famous themed attractions, has been capturing the imaginations of visitors for over seventy years. Originally opened by visionary promoter Dick Pope and his wife Julie in the mid-1930s, the gardens featured acres of blooming flowers, trees, and shrubbery, along with aquatic stunt shows and boat tours.

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

Although the beauty of the gardens alone makes them a Florida treasure, the story of how Cypress Gardens came to be is an equally valuable part of the rich history of Florida tourism. The land was little more than a swamp when founder Dick Pope acquired it, but Pope’s cunning business mind combined with a little luck to make the whole production come off beautifully. As Pope once told author Norman Vincent Peale, his motto was to “think big about everything.”

The

The “Swami of the Swamp” himself, Dick Pope, Sr (1966).

The idea to build a botanical garden for tourists came to Pope during a rough patch in his life. In the 1910s and 1920s, he and his brother Malcolm had been heavily involved in aquatic stunts and boat racing, as well as developing promotions for outboard motor companies like Johnson Motors. As the Great Depression took hold, however, demand for his services dropped, and Pope found himself looking for other projects. He was riding with his wife Julie in their car one day when a magazine article caught his eye. A man in Charleston, South Carolina had built up an impressive set of gardens on his estate, and had had success getting tourists to pay a small admission charge to visit. Dick Pope decided he could do something similar in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had spent much of his childhood and teenage years.

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

Pope quickly bought up several acres of land and a shuttered boat club on Lake Eloise and began preparing them for service as a botanical garden. The labor necessary to achieve this was extensive, of course, but Pope had a few ideas up his sleeve. He approached the local commission charged with managing the canals connecting Lake Eloise with the neighboring bodies of water, and convinced its board to invest $2,800 in his project, which he called “a community park.” He also incorporated the new attraction as a non-profit organization so he could apply for funding from the Works Progress Administration to construct it. After touring the area in a boat with Dick Pope explaining his plans, representatives from the WPA signed off on the project, and soon Dick Pope had a group of federal relief workers busy clearing brush, improving canals, and laying out walkways to serve the new gardens.

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

It wasn’t long before local and federal officials realized that this was much more a private venture than a community park, and the WPA and the local canal commission withdrew their support. Pope was jokingly labeled the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maharaja of Muck” for his manipulative handiwork, but he remained determined to open Cypress Gardens. He reorganized the business and began the planting process with the help of gardener Vernon Rutter of Tennessee. Julie Pope was heavily involved as well, as her husband admitted that he “didn’t know an azalea from a carrot” in those early days. Pope also enlisted the assistance of photographer Robert Dahlgren to ensure that the gardens were laid out in such a way that no matter which direction a camera was pointed, the photograph it captured would be appealing.

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Cypress Gardens officially opened on January 24, 1935. Pope pulled every string in his arsenal of connections to get photographs of the gardens placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. He even managed to get the new attraction featured in several films, which added to the publicity. He invited beauty queens, movie stars, aquatic stunt performers – anyone who might draw attention to Cypress Gardens. Over time, the gardens would host a wide array of distinguished guests, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, President John F. Kennedy, and King Hussein of Jordan. Even the Shah of Iran came once to water-ski on the lake. Asked about the honor of hosting the Shah, Pope quipped, “There’s no business like Shah business.”

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

Cypress Gardens remained successful in the coming years, although changes in tourism and demographics began taking their toll by the early 1970s. Gas prices and shortages, the arrival of larger parks like Walt Disney World, and the tendency of families to make shorter, more location-specific trips cut into the attraction’s market share. Dick Pope and his son, Dick Pope, Jr., tried to adjust to meet the challenge, but found it impossible to catch up. The attraction changed hands several times before finally closing in 2009. The gardens themselves have been preserved as part of a new attraction called Legoland.

Dick Pope passed away in 1988, but his contributions to Florida tourism are honored in several lasting tributes. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Tourism Studies is named for him, and in 2014 Cypress Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens? Tell us about your experiences by commenting on our post. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of your favorite Florida tourist attractions.

Jacksonville’s First African-American Lawyer: Joseph E. Lee

Drawn portrait of Joseph E. Lee (circa 1890s).

Drawn portrait of Joseph E. Lee (circa 1890s).

Joseph E. Lee was one of the most influential African-American men in Florida during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For over four decades, Lee worked as a public servant, acting at various times as a state legislator, a lawyer, federal customs collector, and educator.

Joseph E. Lee (circa 1900s).

Joseph E. Lee (circa 1900s).

Lee was born in Philadelphia in 1849, and graduated from Howard University with a law degree in 1873. He moved to Florida that same year and was admitted to the bar, making him the first African-American lawyer in Jacksonville, and one of the first in the state. He served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1875 to 1879, and in the State Senate from 1881 to 1882. In April 1888, Lee was elected Municipal Judge of Jacksonville, the first African-American to have this honor. Around this time he also served as the dean of the law department of Edward Waters College, an African-American institute of higher learning formed in 1866 to educate freed former slaves. Lee would remain a trustee of the college for over thirty years.

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville (circa 1889).

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville (circa 1889).

Joseph Lee also participated in state and local politics, serving as Chairman of the Duval County Republican Party and secretary of the party’s statewide organization for nearly forty years. The Joseph E. Lee Papers housed at the State Archives of Florida (Collection M86-027) contain dozens of letters from around the state asking for Lee’s counsel on matters regarding political strategy. The two letters below pertain to a particularly dramatic situation in 1916, in which the Democratic vote for the governorship of Florida was split between two candidates, Sidney J. Catts and William V. Knott. Republicans hoped that with the Democratic vote divided as it was during the primary, the Republican candidate, George W. Allen, would have a good chance of winning the general election. Republicans were almost never elected to statewide offices during this period, as their African-American supporters were generally restricted from voting, and white voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. In the first letter, John Edwards of DeLand asks Lee how he should advise the Republican voters of his county since their candidate, Allen, was reputed to be from the “lily-white” faction of the party that favored a conservative approach to African-American civil rights. In the second letter, Lee replies that despite Allen’s positions in this regard, he would be voting the entire Republican ticket, Allen included, and he hoped the Republicans of DeLand would do the same.

Letter from John Edwards to Joseph E. Lee, Oct. 24th, 1916

Letter from John Edwards to Joseph E. Lee, Oct. 24th, 1916

Letter from Joseph E. Lee to John Edwards of DeLand, Oct. 31st, 1916.

Letter from Joseph E. Lee to John Edwards of DeLand, Oct. 31st, 1916.

Joseph E. Lee died March 25, 1920, but his leadership was remembered in a number of lasting tributes. Civil rights leaders James Weldon Johnson and A. Phillip Randolph both remembered Lee as having been a memorable influence on their lives, and to this day a Joseph E. Lee Republican Club still operates in Jacksonville.

Who are the leading lights from your community or county? Search Florida Memory to find photos and documents of other great Floridians like Joseph E. Lee.

Caption the Cat

What is that cat thinking about? June is Adopt-a-Cat-Month, and in honor of the occasion we’ve taken our favorite cat photos and want to know…  Can you caption these cats’ thoughts?

Portrait of Susan Mayo with a Siamese cat - Tallahassee, Florida.

Portrait of Susan Mayo with a Siamese cat – Tallahassee, Florida

 

View showing the Hansen family cats "Corina" and "Julie" in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing the Hansen family cats “Corina” and “Julie” in the photographic studio (1971)

 

View showing the Hansen family cat in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing the Hansen family cat in the photographic studio – Tallahassee, Florida (1969)

 

View showing Dorothy Hansen's cat and kitten in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing Dorothy Hansen’s cat and kitten in the photographic studio – Tallahassee, Florida (1970)

 

Portrait of Julian Hansen playing with a cat - Tallahassee, Florida.

Portrait of Julian Hansen playing with a cat – Tallahassee, Florida (1967)

 

 

Have You Heard of Milwaukee Springs?

Milwaukee Springs was a segregated African-American recreational area operating northwest of Gainesville in Alachua County at least as early as 1940. During World War II, white and African-American leaders alike had high hopes it would be turned into a health and recreation facility for African-American soldiers stationed at Camp Blanding and elsewhere.

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only image Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County.  Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only photograph Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County. Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

One of the earliest references to Milwaukee Springs comes from a biennial report of the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission published in 1940, which briefly notes that the commission’s game technician had participated in a wildlife camp for African-American boys held at this location.

The site surfaces again in the paper trail during World War II. As war clouds threatened during the months before Pearl Harbor, the state government and local communities organized defense councils to coordinate preparations for the U.S. to enter the conflict.  With Jim Crow in full force throughout Florida at this time, communities frequently used separate organizations to coordinate the wartime efforts of African-American civilians, with their leaders keeping in close contact with their white counterparts for the sake of cooperation.

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

Managing and rationing supplies and manpower were critical, of course, but these defense councils also planned for recreation, for civilians and soldiers alike.  A number of African-American leaders were concerned that troops of their race had too few options for recreational activities, which was bad for morale. A group of local Alachua County citizens led by Charles Chestnut, president of the Colored Businessmen’s Association of Gainesville and chairman of a local African-American civil defense organization, proposed that Milwaukee Springs be converted into a facility to provide African-American soldiers with a place to relax during their time away from Camp Blanding or other nearby military posts.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941 (Series 419 – Papers of the State Defense Council, Box 33, State Archives of Florida)

Chestnut’s proposal won the endorsement of local Alachua County representative Samuel Wyche Getzen, and together these men called on Mary McLeod Bethune of the federal Office of Negro Affairs and Executive Secretary James White of the NAACP for help in getting the federal government involved.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives.  Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929.  Photo dated 1959.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives. Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929. Photo dated 1959.

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus.  The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration (circa 1940s).

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus. The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (circa 1940s).

Although the Federal Security Administration appears to have visited the site to consider the project’s worthiness, and a public hearing was held to discuss the matter in early 1942, it is unclear whether Milwaukee Springs ever became the center of African-American health and recreation its sponsors had hoped for.  In fact, aside from a few references in the documents of Florida’s State Defense Council and the papers of the NAACP, very little else exists to document the site.

If you or someone you know has more information about Milwaukee Springs, we’d love to know about it.  Contact us using our web feedback form, and mention this blog post in the subject line.

 

Happy Father’s Day!

You taught us how to bait our hooks and land the big catch.  You showed us how to throw and how to hit the ball just right. You picked us up and swung us around and cheered us up when we needed it most. Thank you to all the wonderful dads out there. Happy Father’s Day!

3 year old Bruce Carlton shows his father, Pet Carlton, his first fish - Saint Petersburg, Florida

3 year old Bruce Carlton shows his father, Pet Carlton, his first fish – Saint Petersburg, Florida (1948)

 

Commercial seine net fisherman with his son in Naples, Florida.

Commercial seine net fisherman with his son in Naples, Florida (June 1949)

 

Edwin Perry having breakfast with his daughters on Father's Day in Tallahassee.

Edwin Perry having breakfast with his daughters on Father’s Day in Tallahassee (1962)

 

Leigh M. Pearsall and daughter Edna with alligator on dock - Melrose, Florida

Leigh M. Pearsall and daughter Edna with alligator on dock – Melrose, Florida (ca. 1905)

 

Governor Farris Bryant playing ping pong with his daughters on Father's Day in Tallahassee (1962)

Governor Farris Bryant playing ping pong with his daughters on Father’s Day in Tallahassee (1962)

 

Gubernatorial candidate Fred B. Karl with his daughter (1964)

Gubernatorial candidate Fred B. Karl with his daughter (1964)

 

Eddie Oxendine and son with hoop nets - Georgetown, Florida

Eddie Oxendine and son with hoop nets – Georgetown, Florida (1985)

 

Daughter wields gavel at legislative session - Tallahassee, Florida

Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Peter Rudy Wallace prepares to conduct business while his daughter wields gavel at legislative session – Tallahassee, Florida (1995)

 

John Cypress holding his daughter Julia at a temporary camp in Immokalee, Florida.

John Cypress holding his daughter Julia at a temporary camp in Immokalee, Florida

The Thomas Guest House of Cedar Key

The small fishing village of Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast is in many ways an icon of Old Florida charm. Wood frame houses line the sandy streets of downtown, and the restaurants serve up fresh Florida seafood, much of which was brought in from right offshore. Golf carts are a favored mode of transportation, and why not? There’s not even enough automobile traffic on the island to require the use of a single traffic signal.

An aerial view of the Dock Street loop in Cedar Key. Photo circa 1970s.

An aerial view of the Dock Street loop in Cedar Key. Photo circa 1970s.

Few landmarks in Cedar Key capture the essence of the place so well as the Thomas Guest House, a small wooden cottage built on pilings over the shallow Gulf waters right off 1st Street. Originally built in 1959 by the Thomases of Gainesville, the house was for many years an ideal escape from the press of everyday business for the family and their friends. A small boardwalk was all that connected the house with the mainland. Out front, visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the sparkling Gulf and the other islands of the Cedar Key archipelago.

The Thomas Guest House sometime prior to Hurricane Elena in 1985 - likely taken in the 1970s.

The Thomas Guest House (December 1977).

The Thomas Guest House at sunset. Photo circa 1970s.

The Thomas Guest House at sunset. Photo circa 1970s.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe in Florida

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and noted abolitionist, is remembered for her New England roots and Northern perspectives. However, Stowe both influenced and was influenced by Florida.

Photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

After the Civil War, in 1867, Stowe and her family wintered in Mandarin, FL on the east bank of the St. Johns River, now a neighborhood of Jacksonville.

Mandarin, FL Home Harriet Beecher Stowe and family

Mandarin, FL Home Harriet Beecher Stowe and family, between 1869 and 1878

During her Florida winters, Stowe wrote Palmetto Leaves, published in 1873, a travel memoir of her years in Mandarin. Palmetto Leaves’ literary sketches include: “A Flowery January in Florida,” “Swamps and Orange-Trees,” “The Laborers of the South,” and “Buying Land in Florida” among others.

HBS cover

Cover of the 1st Edition of Stowe’s Palmetto Leaves (1873)

Until its destruction in 1964 by Hurricane Dora, the Church of Our Saviour in Mandarin, FL housed the Stowe Memorial Stained Glass Window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Harriet Beecher Stowe memorial window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the Chruch of Our Saviour in Mandarin, Florida

Harriet Beecher Stowe memorial window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the Church of Our Saviour in Mandarin, FL

 

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

Washboard Bill was born in Dupont, Florida on July 4, 1905. He was known as a percussionist, rooted in the minstrel tradition, as well as a captivating storyteller. During much of Cooke’s childhood, his mother operated a juke joint in Dupont. The young Cooke would secretly stay up past his bedtime listening to the music emanating from his mother’s establishment. These experiences shaped Cooke’s interest in music, and greatly influenced his rhythmic style later on in life.

Close up of William

Close up of William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

At age six, Cooke began working for a local sawmill, making 25 cents per day, after his mother fell on hard financial times. In 1916, Mrs. Cooke closed her juke joint, and sent her children to live on their grandfather’s farm in Sanford, Florida. As times grew tougher and the Great Depression set in, Cooke grew weary of his life on the farm, and decided to leave home. For ten years, he led the life of a hobo, traveling by train all over the East Coast.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke poses with his washboard and cymbals

Although Cooke spent the majority of his younger years traveling outside of Florida, he still maintained a connection with the state, generally spending his winters in West Palm Beach. Between 1947 and 1963, he performed with a group called the West Palm Beach Washboard Band. They played in venues everywhere from the streets to the estates of the Rockefellers and Kennedys. In 1956, he recorded Washboard Country Band with Sonny Terry and folk legend Pete Seeger. Cooke moved to West Palm Beach permanently in 1973. He performed in Florida and throughout the country until his death in 2003. For his musical and historical contributions, Cooke received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1992.

Portrait of street musician William

Portrait of street musician William “Washboard Bill” Cooke on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In 1988, Cooke recited a personal narrative, A Hobo’s Birthday, for the Palm Beach County Folk Arts in Education Project, conducted by the Florida Folklife Program. Cooke’s story offers a fascinating account of life as a hobo during the Great Depression. His travels and experiences give the listener a vivid portrayal of transient life on the railroad tracks, and of the character Washboard Bill.

Podcast: A Hobo’s Birthday by William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

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Download: MP3

For more information, please see:

Interview with Washboard Bill Cooke (and) Washboard Bill Cooke story: A Hobo’s Birthday

Preparing for D-Day: Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion, in which over 100,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches along the coast of Normandy, France, making it the largest seaborne invasion in history. Some of the troops  arrived by parachute, but the vast majority waded ashore after being transported in specially constructed vehicles. The Army and Navy had been planning for amphibious invasions like the one at Normandy for some time, and Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida was one of the sites selected for training troops to do the job.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Carrabelle, a small town southwest of Tallahassee in Franklin County, was little more than a small fishing village when military leaders decided to use the terrain around it as an amphibious training base. A small military installation called Camp Carrabelle was already located here, but it would require major expansion to suit the Army’s needs. Once the site was selected, the federal government quickly bought up 10,000 acres of land and leased an additional 155,000 acres, forming a base with nearly twenty miles of frontage on the Gulf coast between St. George Island and Alligator Point, including Dog Island and the beaches near Carrabelle. In a few weeks contractors were already at work on the thousands of buildings and other structures needed to complete the training center. The new installation was named for Gordon Johnston, an Alabama native who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I and received the Medal of Honor in 1910.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

Camp Gordon Johnston quickly developed a reputation for its tough conditions. For many of the camp’s first inhabitants, few of whom were actually from Florida, the contrast between the Florida of postcards and travel literature and the Florida they experienced was incredible. Because they had been thrown together in such short order to accommodate the troops, the barracks lacked dependable heating and in most cases had no floors. At first, the camp had no mess halls, and soldiers were obliged to eat their meals outdoors using their mess kits.

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in a chow line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

The challenges of the terrain were no cakewalk, either. Sure, there was a beach, but as residents of the camp explained, there were also insects, snakes, lizards, mud, drenching rain, and stifling heat. Sergeant Bill Roth captured the feelings of the men toward Camp Gordon Johnston’s steamy conditions in a poem that appeared in one of the first issues of the camp’s newspaper, The Amphibian.

The rattlesnake bites you, the horsefly stings,
The mosquito delights you with his buzzin wings.
Sand burrs cause you to jig and dance
And those who sit down get ants in their pants.

The heat in the summer is one hundred and ten
Too hot for the Devil, too hot for the men.
Come see for yourself and you can tell
It’s a helluva place, this Carrabelle.

Living conditions nothwithstanding, soldiers at Camp Gordon Johnston found plenty of ways to entertain themselves during their stay. Carrabelle itself might not have been the most active metropolis, but GI’s could have a pleasant time reading in the camp’s library, fishing from one of the nearby piers, attending a USO-sponsored dance, or catching the latest movie at the camp’s theater. By the end of the war, the post featured five theaters, three service clubs for enlisted men, clubs for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, baseball, baketball, and boxing leagues, and six chapels to minister to the spiritual needs of the camp residents. Tallahassee was the nearest city of any size, but it was already crowded with GI’s stationed at Dale Mabry Field. Soldiers reported difficulties even finding a room at the local hotels, but that didn’t stop them from trying. The Lee Bus Line and later a special passenger railroad carried residents of Camp Gordon Johnston to and from Tallahassee regularly.

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston's dance halls (circa 1944).

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston’s dance halls (circa 1944).

Training for amphibious warfare was the initial purpose of Camp Gordon Johnston, but as the war continued the Army began shifting more responsibility for this kind of tactic to the Navy. In 1943 the base was re-purposed as an Army Service Force Training Center, where small companies could be trained to operate boats and amphibious trucks for the Army’s “island-hopping” campaign in the Pacific. Engineers charged with constructing, repairing, and maintaining ports also trained at the center, and starting in 1944 small numbers of German and Italian prisoners of war were sent there.

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle.

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle. “D” stood for date (1942), “U” stood for amphibian, “K” indicated the vehicle was all-wheel drive, and “W” meant the vehicle had dual rear axles. Photo 1944.

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

A number of African-American troops resided at Camp Gordon Johnston during its tenure. For these men, many of whom were from the Northern U.S., entering the segregated world of the Florida Panhandle in the 1940s was a difficult transition. While white residents enjoyed the use of the camp’s guest house, library, and service clubs, black soldiers were not permitted to enter these facilities, nor was a segregated alternative provided until much later in the war. Moreover, Carrabelle and other nearby small towns were still in the grip of Jim Crow segregation laws, and tensions between the races at times broke out into violence.

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

When news of the Japanese surrender reached Camp Gordon Johnston in 1945, the effect was said to have rivaled the power of the atomic bomb. Concerts and parades marked the occasion, and the demand for beer was so high that bartenders reportedly were forced to serve it before it had even had time to chill. With the war over, the camp’s life came to a close as well. The base officially shut down in early 1946, and by 1947 the federal government had disposed of its land in the region.

A barricade marked

A barricade marked “Government Property – Keep Off” blocks the driveway to the barracks of Camp Gordon Johnston after it closed in 1946.

Little remains of Camp Gordon Johnston, but local citizens and former camp residents still gather from time to time to reminisce about what it was like to train in the sun, sand, and heat around Carrabelle. The Camp Gordon Johnston Association organizes these reunions in cooperation with the American Legion Post at Lanark Village and other community partners.

Learn more about the World War II era in Florida by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. Teachers and students, you’ll find useful resources on the subject in our learning unit.