icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Learn history, especially its nuances

I write this column on Mondays, and tomorrow, Tuesday, July 7, will be the 150th anniversary of the execution of Mary Surratt. That means nothing to most people, certainly not to most of those who loudly proclaim their Southern heritage -- and who almost always know almost nothing about that history. One of them, when interviewed in a newspaper report on the July 4 local rally of pick-up truck drivers and motorcycle riders who substitute noise for thought, inadvertently disclosed his true beliefs: he told a reporter that he used to wear the uniform of a Union solider, but switched to Confederate when Obama was elected.

Had he known anything factual about Southern history, he might use July 4 to honor Mary Surratt. Along with three men (one a German named Atzerodt), she was hanged on July 7, 1865 for complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I have researched her thoroughly, especially in the archives of (Catholic) Georgetown University, and I’m convinced that religious bias played a big role in the guilty verdict. Most people have forgotten it, but Catholics in mid-nineteenth America were treated much the same way that Muslims are now. Back then, millions of American Protestants honestly believed that Catholics took their orders directly from the Vatican and, given half a chance, would turn over the government of the United States to the pope.

To put this in context, Mary Surratt was a widow who owned a boarding house in Washington, DC, (in today’s Chinatown section), as well as a tavern cum inn cum post office in Clinton, Maryland, which is about an hour south of Washington. (Both today and then, I think, as traffic now is so bad that a horse probably could do the distance in the same amount of time. Anyone who thinks that the DC area gets its share of transportation money has not driven there.) After her husband died in 1862, the war’s second year, Mary Surratt commuted every few days between these enterprises. Her life centered on supporting her family, not supporting the Confederacy.

But she had an adult son, John Surratt, who hung out with actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth and other rabid rebels were frequent visitors at both Surratt properties, and he hid rifles in the attic of her Maryland establishment. John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth also were akin to many modern “heritage” guys in that they liked to dress up and act the hero, but they did not submit themselves to the hardships and military discipline of the Confederate army. Perhaps guilt at their failure to have actually done something for the Lost Cause motivated them when the South lost, and they hatched their sneaky assassination plot. It was more extensive than you may have realized, including plans to kill other civilian Union leaders and take over the federal government.

They failed. But much like the situation after 9-11, Washingtonians had reason to be fearful, and they reacted similarly. So while Booth and his confederates ran from the law, Mary Surratt was left to face charges that she was part of their terrorist plot. Immediately imprisoned and tried in a military court, she was not allowed to testify on her own behalf. Evidence that could have cleared her was not used, as prosecutors ran amok. She had almost no legal representation; indeed, her “lawyers” learned about her conviction in the newspapers. Her son fled to Canada and then to Italy – and when he returned three years later, got little more than a slap on the wrist. His mother, meanwhile, was dead. Very few people ever visit her grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery, which is on US 50 in eastern DC. “Heritage” guys would benefit by going there and pondering the complexities of “patriotism.”

While there is no evidence that Mary Surratt ever spied for the Confederacy, many other women did – but few Southern belles were prosecuted for their genuinely treasonable acts against the United States. I think she was treated differently not only because she was Catholic, but also because she was an independent businesswoman and had no family to protect her. The Surratt Society that maintains her Maryland home does an excellent job of encouraging detailed Civil War research, but even its officials leave open the question of whether she had knowledge of Booth’s intentions. Whatever she did or did not know, though, she didn’t deserve to die.

The United States has executed two women for alleged treason. The second was Ethel Rosenberg, who was electrocuted about a century later, during America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union – something that in retrospect, also was a reign of political terror. And to me, it’s not coincidental that Rosenberg was Jewish. Please think about that re Muslim Americans. Remember that the devil always is in the details. Learn history, especially its nuances. Nothing is black and white, now or then.

* * *

That brings us to a subject I’ve addressed before, but still needs attention. You may have seen recent articles by Congresswoman Kathy Castor and “Mr. Florida History” Gary Mormino about the two statues that represent us in the nation’s capitol in Washington. Each of the fifty states is allowed to display two images, and it is up to the state to decide whom to commemorate. Several states recently have revisited their history for more inclusive representation, and it’s time for us to do the same with one of ours.

The one that should remain is of John Gorrie, the Apalachicola physician who, in the 1840s, pioneered ice manufacturing and air conditioning to cool his fevered patients. Gorrie died impoverished, and it would take almost a century before his scientific principles were widely accepted – but his research ultimately was the beginning of the most important factor in making Florida what it is today. We would not be the third-biggest state without air conditioning.

Our other statue is of Edmund Kirby Smith, who was known by his middle name. I went to the Capitol Visitors Center that connects to the capitol a few days after it opened in 2009 and was shocked to see that he has a prominent place. At the top of the main escalator, he was difficult to miss – and Congresswoman Castor says she has a very hard time explaining to visiting schoolchildren why Florida is giving Kirby Smith this significant honor. His major credential is that was the last Confederate general to surrender, and the 1922 placement of his statue was a tribute to the revived Ku Klux Klan of that era. My main objection, however, is not that he was a Confederate, but that he lived almost none of his life in Florida. Born to a prominent family in St. Augustine, he left the state at age five and never returned.

Kirby Smith was educated at the expense of federal taxpayers and graduated from the Army’s academy at West Point, New York, in 1845. He immediately went on to that era’s war, the Mexican War of 1846-1848 -- the one in which we invaded Mexico to grab land from Texas to California, territory that the Spanish government in Mexico City had begun settling in 1598. While there, Smith did some study of Mexican botany for the new Smithsonian Institute and then taught math at West Point until the Civil War began in 1861. Then he switched sides and used his federally funded education in military science to fight against the United States.

The Confederate States of America surrendered in 1865 and its government fled, yet Smith arguably had more treason against the United States in mind when he joined with other rebels who planned to continue the war from Mexico. That came to naught, however, and he lived out the rest of his life in Tennessee, where he held educational posts at the University of the South and invested in the expanding telegraph industry (also heavily subsidized by the federal government). This vita hardly makes him the greatest or second greatest or any sort of greatest Floridian of all time.

Lots of others might merit this honor. Maybe a statue of Pedro Menendez de Avilas would inform other Americans that his 1565 colony at St. Augustine was decades prior to that of Virginia’s Jamestown (1607) and Massachusetts’ Plymouth (1620). Or maybe a proud Seminole such as Osceola: that tribe fought fiercely from 1816 to 1858, attempting to hold on to their homeland. Even if we choose another Confederate, there are better choices than Kirby Smith. Stephen Mallory of Key West and Pensacola headed the Confederate Navy, while David Levy Yulee, the first Jew in the US Senate, used his Levy County property to supply Confederate soldiers. Then there’s Governor John Milton, who killed himself when he realized what the war that he supported had done to Florida. To say nothing of former First Lady Martha Reid, who ran the state’s hospital in the Confederate capital of Richmond. A widow whose only child died in the war, she walked much of the way back home.

Or if we need a white man from the early twentieth century, I think Governor Napoleon Broward would be a good choice. My friend Dr. Mormino disagrees: he thinks that Broward’s attempt to drain the Everglades would make him anathema to environmentalists. Gary’s probably right, although Broward has other points in his favor: he firmly supported public education, including the beginning of the university system, and he created a strong state health department. (Draining swamps to end mosquito-based epidemics was closely related to public health.) His wife, Annie Broward, worked for women’s right to vote. She was a colleague of Ivy Stranahan, who founded Fort Lauderdale with her husband, and of Julia Tuttle -- who founded Miami pretty much on her own.

Miami’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas lobbied with them and also would make would make an excellent choice. Not only an internationally known author and an icon to environmentalists, she lived a very active 107 years, from 1890 to 1998. What better representative for Florida than this very senior senior citizen? She spoke to the Florida legislature on her 100th birthday, and when President Bill Clinton honored her with the Medal of Freedom in 1993, she used the media opportunity to discuss the ongoing warfare in Bosnia based on her time there during World War I.

* * *

Others might merit the honor, including novelists Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston, but my nominee is Mary McLeod Bethune. Born in rural South Carolina, she was the fifteenth child of former slaves (how’s that for an intact family?). She managed to go Chicago’s famed Moody Bible Institute because a white Quaker woman in Colorado paid her tuition; they never met until both were old. Young Mary wanted to be a missionary to Africa – but could find no church that would sponsor a black woman in Africa. Returning home, she taught in segregated schools in South Carolina and Georgia.

One of the things that I intend to write more about as I age is how much women’s history is influenced by the fact that we get pregnant and men don’t. More and more, I look closely at marriage dates and birth dates, and usually I find a lot of obscurity that hides chronological facts. Being pregnant before marriage was a scandal that could virtually (and sometimes literally) end a woman’s life. That’s what I suspect caused Mary McLeod to marry Albertus Bethune in 1898. They had a son early in 1899, but her husband was a factor in her life only for a few years. (She kept his name, however, and obviously understood the value of the sound of “Mary McLeod Bethune;” she objected if someone shortened it.)

In 1904, when she was 29 and her child was five, she left the Palatka turpentine camps where her husband worked and began the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. It was in an old house, and her five initial students helped clear a junkyard; they sold the scrap for food money. The school had a strong religious basis, with no misbehavior allowed, and she dressed them in uniforms to obscure any disparities. Bethune was as smart as any modern marketer, and she especially enrolled the daughters of women who traveled as maids for wealthy employers. The boarding school gave these girls a safe haven in summer, and in winter, when Rockefellers and other such families returned to Florida, the girls’ choir raised funds by singing for them.

Already by 1917, Bethune had enough friends in high places that she was asked to do a national tour recruiting support among African Americans for World War I. As soon as Florida women got the vote in 1920, she began registration drives -- and withstood threats from Klansman who, in the same years, were placing Kirby Smith’s statue in Washington. She also was involved in private enterprise beyond her school: in 1923, during an era when insurers refused to sell policies to blacks, she became a founding director of the Tampa-based Central Life Insurance Company. Three decades later, all thirteen of her male co-founders had died, and in 1952, Mary McLeod Bethune became the only female president of an insurance company in America.

She completed the merger of her girls’ school with that of a Jacksonville-based boys school, and Bethune-Cookman College was named that in 1929. Then she increasingly expanded her roles to national and international influence. Living in Washington part of the time, Mary McLeod Bethune was, at various points in her life, president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, the Association for the Study of Negro Life, and the founding president of National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Also a vice-president of the NAACP, she served on the boards of Planned Parenthood and other organizations.

She founded the NCNW in 1935, soon after President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her head of the National Youth Administration. This Depression-era program taught vocational skills not only to young blacks, but also to Native Americans and Mexican Americans. The first African American of either gender to head a federal agency, she traveled 35,000 miles in 1939 alone, implementing the goals of an innovative initiative that helped alleviate poverty and unrest.

Perhaps most important for Florida – although acknowledged by almost no one – Mary McLeod Bethune doubtless was the reason that Daytona Beach became the second camp for the Women’s Army Corps in 1942, the first full year of World War II. She served on the WAC’s founding advisory council and worked quietly but successfully for racial integration of the military in 1948. Well before that, though, a 1931 poll of journalists placed her tenth on a list of fifty outstanding women. The highest accolade of all came in 1945, when President Harry Truman appointed her to the founding convention of the new United Nations. Mary McLeod Bethune was the only woman of color in the entire world who had an official status.

I think she should replace Kirby Smith. Let me know what you think.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and
Make a comment to the author