Sunday, September 11, 2022

Some People I Have Known -- Mrs. Florida Segrest

 As my wife and I have traveled together this summer, I have told her a few stories of people I have known, and she has always said: "You should write these stories down." And so I begin.

During my senior year at Auburn University I was editor of the student newspaper. Because it was a demanding job, requiring about 80 hours a week, I only took one course each quarter of the 1971-72 school year, and then completed college after two more quarters in December of 1972. Planning to go to law school, I needed a job for the nine-month gap until the following September. I was fortunate to be hired by Neil Davis, publisher of the Auburn Bulletin, to work at the small weekly paper he owned in nearby Tuskegee. When I interviewed Mr. Davis for the job I asked what my salary would be and was told I would earn $160 a week. More impressively, I learned that my title would be Managing Editor.


The Tuskegee News had a small office in Tuskegee with a part-time employee who had office hours to accept advertising and payments locally. "Managing Editor" meant I was the only full-time employee of the paper. There was no one to manage and nothing to edit. I had to write every story, sell some of the advertising, edit my own work, paste up the pages every Wednesday, watch the paper get printed in Auburn usually very late Wednesday night or in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and deliver the papers to machines and stores in Tuskegee early Thursday morning.

A young Mrs. Florida Segrest
One of my regular duties was to attend and report on every meeting of the Macon County Commission, which I believe met twice each month. It was there that I first encountered Mrs. Florida Segrest, chair of the County Commission. We got along famously. I believe she first took an interest in me because of my family name and because I worked for her friend Neil Davis, while I was curious about her given name and how she continued to be the only white elected official in a county with an 85% black population.

At the first meeting I covered, I sat right next to Mrs. Segrest as she presided and chain-smoked throughout the meeting. She had a peculiar habit of alternating between smoking one regular cigarette and one menthol cigarette all day long. She liked to keep her two packs even, so every time she put out one cigarette she would wait a minute or two and then count the cigarettes in each pack to determine what to smoke next. As it would work, if she counted 11 menthol cigarettes and ten regular, it was clear that she would smoke a menthol next. But every other time she counted, the two packs had an equal number left, leaving her baffled. When that happened, after counting them both she would set the two packs down and stare at them for a minute or two before just finally taking one or the other and lighting up. All of this went on while she was presiding over the meeting, and I understood right away that keeping up with her smoking was likely the most dramatic thing I would witness at each County Commission meeting. My meeting notes were always filled with notations of which kind of smoke she was having at what time, like "11:17 -- menthol". Her choice of what to smoke next was correct about half of the time. She could have turned to me at any time to ask "what's next?", but we never discussed her smoking habits.

The answer to my first question, about her name, came immediately after that first meeting, but the answer to the question about race only became clear over time. When I asked how she got the name "Florida", she said that she was born while her father was running for office in Florida and he chose to name her Florida as something of a campaign stunt. It turns out that her father was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, as in "Broward County", governor of Florida from 1905 until 1909. Florida was born in 1904 during his successful campaign.

As I spent those nine months in Tuskegee, I got to know Mrs. Segrest

well. She and her husband had me to dinner one night at their rambling old home where they had installed a hospital bed in the living room for his use, as he could no longer climb the stairs. The house was dusty and drafty and the dinner was interesting, but the Segrests were great hosts and they went out of their way to make me welcome. Mrs. Segrest was a fountain of knowledge about the history of the Macon County area. Her stories lasted well into the evening. And she spent an equal amount of time inquiring about me, my family history, and my plans for the future. 

Tuskegee had been a center of the civil rights movement. After the first Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1957, progress was gradually being made to register more black voters in the city. Blacks outnumbered whites in the city by four to one and some whites were worried about losing control. So local white politicians lobbied the state legislature to change the boundaries of the city. (Without "local rule", such changes had to be made by special acts of the state legislature.) When the legislature acted, the new city limits had 28 sides, ran down alleys and between homes, and included every white voter while excluding nearly all black voters. The political effect of this maneuver was to join the forces of black residents with the interests of an elite group of well-educated black professors and staff at Tuskegee Institute and at a large veterans hospital there.

The result was a lawsuit named Gomillion vs. Lightfoot. With numerous parties on each side, the namimg of lawsuits is often pretty random, but Lightfoot was the mayor of Tuskegee while Dr. Gomillion was a Tuskegee Institute professor. I interviewed Dr. Gomillion while I was in Tuskegee and wrote a feature article in the paper about his life and the case. 

The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, and the decision was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Fred Gray, a Tuskegee attorney, along with Robert L. Carter, lead counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued the case before the United States Supreme Court. 

At the time of the Supreme Court hearing of the case, journalist Bernard Taper wrote:  “The state's redrawing of the city's boundaries had the unintended effect of uniting Tuskegee Institute's Black intellectuals with the less educated Blacks living outside the sphere of the school. Some members of the school's faculty realized that possessing advanced degrees ultimately provided them no different status among the city's white establishment."  

Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960), was the landmark decision that found an electoral district with boundaries created to disenfranchise Blacks violated the Fifteenth Amendment. When I got to know him, Fred Gray was quick to point out to me that Florida Segrest was the only white leader and her husband the only white attorney in the county to support the civil rights movement and the efforts to overturn the gerrymandering of the City limits.

Dr. Gomillion's hope for a bi-racial government in Tuskegee ultimately lost out to white flight. As a result, at the time I worked in Tuskegee, the mayor, every member of the City Council, the sheriff, and every member of the County Commission except Mrs. Segrest was black, and the number of white voters had shrunk significantly in both the city and the county. Mrs. Segrest was chair of the County Commission because her bold stand for civil rights in the late 1950's and 1960's gained her a permanent position of respect and leadership in the community for as long as she lived.

As for history, Florida Segrest is featured in a place of honor at the Tuskegee History Center, a museum established by Fred Gray. For a discussion of the huge role of Tuskegee in African-American history (including the birth of Lionel Richie and The Commodores) see this article, written by Mrs. Segrest's grandson. Her obituary can be seen here. Boxes of her historical documents were donated to the archives at both Auburn and Samford Universities. I am honored to have known her.

9 comments:

  1. Loved this bit of history. Keep writing!

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  2. What wonderful memories, and so well told. Thank you for sharing Miss Florida's story.

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  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Florida Broward Segrest was my great aunt. She was baby sister to my grandmother Enid Lyle Broward Hardee elected to public office in 1940 a nationally recognized leader in the Democratic Party. I had the great occasion to interview my great Aunt Florida for an Alabama history TV series produced by my brother Douglas Hardee who now lives in Tampa Florida. Since our first meeting in the 1970’s I have been through the boxes at Samford University with her grandson my cousin Doug Segrest. I’ve come to know Fred Gray and Steve Segrest and Carlton Segrest and Martha Segrest Dickey as they’ve helped me with a book I’ve been years and researching and writing www.GirlsonthePorch.com. Thank you for your story. Florida Douglass Broward Segrest truly deserves her own biography as she and her husband Henry Neil played a significant role in the history of Tuskegee Alabama. Florida was one of 8 daughters and 1 son of Florida Governor Napoleon and First Lady Annie Douglass Broward. I hope you will visit the blog I’ve developed with the support of her grandson Carlton Segrest.

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  5. My grandmother should have her own biography. I loved reading about the chain smoking... oddly enough - it is one of my greatest memories of her. She was never the type of grandmother who invited you into her lap... instead she would send you for a small glass of sherry to sip while she sat in her chair - a cigarette burning (at times) on both sides of her. Oh! How I wish I could go back and ask questions!!! I once stopped on my way through Tuskegee with a friend. I knocked several times as we peered through the windows on each side of the front door. As she spied the stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines, my friend said, "No one lives here; this house is abandoned". I said, "Oh no... It looks like my grandmother's house to me".

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