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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.

A Downtown Street Named for a Woman?

You may remember that I wrote a couple of months ago on the origins of Tampa’s street names. John Jackson was the federally employed surveyor who first put Tampa on the map in 1847, and he named most of its streets for Democratic presidents or Democratic nominees for president. There are a few exceptions, and the two street names that I could not definitely explain were Marion and Whiting. I still have work to do on Whiting, and my speculation on Marion, I think, is turning out to be wrong. I thought it probably was named for Francis Marion, the great “Swamp Fox” of the Revolutionary War. He baffled British troops in Carolina, and many of Tampa’s early residents were from there. But instead, I now believe that Marion Street was named for a woman.

To put this in context, let me tell you that my recent snail mail contained a copy of Female Pioneers of Fort Myers by Robin C. Tuthill and Thomas P. Hall. Robin had sent me the manuscript to read last fall and I provided a promotional endorsement. I probably did not read the book’s introductory material then, as I did not realize until today that the Acknowledgments include me. I’m even more confident that I did not see the Time Line then. It uses the present tense that modern historians favor, and the first entry is for 1850:

“On Valentine’s Day, Major General David Emmanuel Twiggs sends two companies of soldiers to establish an outpost ‘deep in Seminole Indian Territory.’ As a gift to his daughter, Marion Isabelle Twiggs, he names the post Fort Myers to honor her fiancé, Colonel Abraham C. Myers, who had served admirably under Twiggs’ command.”

Our Twiggs Street was named for this Fort Brooke commander, and now I strongly suspect that Marion Street was named for his daughter. If anyone can prove otherwise, please let me know. If so, it is the only one honoring a white woman. Fortune Street, as I explained in an earlier column, was named for Fortune Taylor, a black woman who homesteaded the land that now centers around the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Marion Twiggs Myers, however, seems not to be as admirable as Fortune Taylor.

The Darker Side of the Story

Neither Marion nor Abraham Myers ever visited Fort Myers. Tampa probably was rude enough for her, and the swamps of southwest Florida would have been much rougher. Very soon after the assignment and without any real explanation, Colonel Myers was reassigned to Washington. Marion became known as a beautiful belle in the 1850s, at the height of fashion awareness and society balls. When the Civil War began, Abraham resigned his commission in the US Army and joined the Confederacy. They moved down to Richmond, but Marion soon left the continent entirely and -- like many other wealthy Southerners -- spent the war years in Europe.

Abraham meanwhile headed the Quartermaster Corps in Richmond. A “quartermaster,” as you probably know, is the guy in charge of supplying the quarters, and as the South ran short of supplies of all sorts, he was charged with corruption. The fact that he was Jewish doubtless added to this unfair stereotype. According to the new book, Abraham Myers was the grandson of the first rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of approximately 10,000 Jews for fought for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee authorized them to substitute religious duty for military ones on holy days, but discrimination against Jews in both the North and South would be routine for another century.

Although I’ve not thoroughly explored the question, I think Myers was largely innocent of major corruption. Supply is perhaps the main topic of women who worked in Civil War hospitals and camps. I’ve read dozens of such diaries and letter collections complaining of men who stole medicines or sold rotten food for a profit, but I don’t recall ever seeing Myers’ name. In fact, the worst of those offenders were civilians, not military, and more often than not, they were Northerners. Instead, it may be that Confederate President Jefferson Davis forced Myers to resign in 1863 because their wives were rivals. Among other calumnies, Marion Twiggs Myers apparently said that Virginia Howell Davis resembled “an old squaw.” A number of images are available, and I don’t see the analogy. Even if it were there, it shouldn’t matter.

Although Davis was on the wrong side of history and certainly married to the wrong man, I’ve always empathized with her. She had a better education than most women of her time and chafed under the legal guardianship of her brother-in-law while her husband – who was much older than she -- was away on military duty. She gave birth to six children, two of them during the war, and lost all four of her sons at an early age. Yet she stayed through devastation around Richmond until nearly the end. Then, taking her children, she fled to Georgia; her husband soon joined her there, and both were arrested. She initially was under house arrest in Savannah, but later was allowed to see him in prison at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

He repaid her loyalty by having affairs throughout their marriage. Whether or not Marion Twiggs Myers was among the objects of his attention, I do not know – but he left much written evidence of his passion for the opposite sex and eventually lived with another woman. That sign you see about his home as you go through Biloxi on US 90 really refers to the home of Sarah A. Dorsey, a successful biographer and novelist. Jefferson and Varina Davis were separated, but not divorced, when Dorsey invited him to live at her home, Beauvoir, while he completed his memoirs. She died in 1879; he inherited her property; and New York newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer rescued the former first lady from poverty by hiring her as a columnist in 1890.

Prior to that, though, both the Myers and the Davis families spent the 1870s in Europe, far away from the havoc that their anti-federal government actions had caused. It’s also important to remember that both of these men had built their careers at West Point, where the Army provided a free education to the privileged.

If I Had Known Then What I Know Now

I surely would have included more Fort Myers women in my book on Florida women (They Dreamed to Dream, University Press of Florida) if the Tuthill/Hall book had been available sooner. That’s the way history is: there’s always something new.
Even though the story still was ongoing at publication time, perhaps I should have included Erin Kimmele, too. You probably know that she is the USF anthropology professor who stood up to the powerful in Tallahassee who wanted to continue to ignore the horrific wrongdoing that occurred at the Dozier school in the Panhandle. Only through tenacious fighting could she get permission to hunt for evidence of boys who were beaten to death at that “reform” school.

Local residents, relatives of the bullies and sadists who were employed there at the time, threatened Dr. Kimmele. She is a petite blonde who easily could have seen that as a reason to give up, but she persisted. Nor did she get any particular support from her academic colleagues; the last time I checked, this woman who has brought international acclaim to USF still had not been promoted to full professor. The Tampa Bay Times gave better support to the key reporter on the story, Ben Montgomery. I’m proud to say that he, like Hubby and me, is a graduate of Arkansas Tech.

We also owe a special shout-out to the Tampa legislators who carried this cause in Tallahassee. Most of the slain boys were white, but it was two African-Americans who led the way to justice: Senator Arthenia Joyner and Representative Ed Narian. As late as last spring, it appeared that a shopping mall might be built atop these lonely graves, but now the boys will have a proper memorial. Their families, and some old men who survived, have an apology from the state that was supposed to care for them when they were young. The sixties are over – and we are almost past the era when guys in uniforms could do what they wanted.

Amendment to My Gripe Fest

A few weeks ago, I ranted about Bright House when it behaved badly while Hubby was in ICU. It is the bundler for our phone, TV, and internet, and after contacting robots, I talked to five real people before someone finally followed through with repair. Because we’ve had the same phone number for more than forty years, I depend on the landline -- but I do have a cell phone from another company, Great Call. Yes, I know that is considered a geezer phone because it advertises with AARP and has big numerals, but it’s fine with me.

It’s even finer now that I’ve discovered their directory assistance. I’d never had a reason to use it until last week, and when I punched in 1411, I fully expected the automaton everyone has gotten for years. Instead, a young man said, “This is Tony. Are you Ms. Weatherford and how can I help you?” I nearly dropped the phone jumping with joy. Great Call is great, regardless of your age.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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