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Rooms 209 and 210 share a common theme entitled “We the People.” This exhibit explores the struggle for Civil Rights of some of Florida's principal minority groups: African Americans, Native Americans, Cuban Americans and Women. Today, United States citizens, regardless of race, gender or background, have the right to vote and participate in the political process. This has not always been true.
As you enter room 209 from the hallway, the exhibit case on your right describes the struggle by women for the right to vote in Florida. The national women's suffrage movement gained strength in the late 1800s and by 1917, fifteen states granted some form of women's suffrage. In Florida, twenty-three Florida municipalities also allowed women some voting rights. In 1917, a group of prominent Florida women including two former First Ladies appeared before a House committee urging passage of a women's suffrage bill. One of the women recalled that the all white male committee treated them with amusement and did not take them seriously. The committee vote was 7 to 1 against suffrage. Finally in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, giving all American women the right to vote.
In 1982, Governor Bob Graham established the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. The recipients are honored with a plaque located in the new Capitol. One of the artifacts in the exhibit case on Women's suffrage is a T-shirt with the character “Margaret” from the Dennis the Menace comic strip. The caption on the shirt reads, “Some day, a woman will be PRESIDENT!” It is one of the more popular items in the whole museum.
The exhibit case to your left as you enter the room describes the impact of Cuban Americans in Florida’s politics. Florida’s relationship with Cuba traces back to the early 1500s. By the late 1800s, many Cubans settled in Florida and Tampa became the “Cradle of Cuban Independence” from Spain. Up through the Spanish-American War in 1898, Floridians supported Cuban patriots. By the 1920s, a regular airline linked Florida to Cuba. After Castro took power in Cuba, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into South Florida. As they settled into Florida, they began to enter the political process. Spanish language radio, television stations and newspapers informed Cubans and other Hispanic Americans helping them enter into Florida’s political process. By 1982, there were three Cuban Americans in the Florida Legislature. Some of the artifacts in the case relate to the Tampa Cigar industry founded by Cuban Americans.
The third case in the room, next to the window, relates the political struggles of African-Americans in Florida. In 1934, civil rights pioneer Harry T. Moore started the Brevard County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The killing of Harry T. Moore and his wife on Christmas morning in 1951 had a profound effect on the Civil Rights movement, bringing international attention to its struggle. In 1956, Reverend C. K. Steele led the Tallahassee bus boycott of segregated public buses. While not as well known as the Civil Rights events in Montgomery, Alabama and Little Rock, Arkansas, the Tallahassee Bus Boycott was successful and important in the Civil Rights movement. Among the artifacts in this case are receipts for the poll tax. The poll tax was one of many barriers barring African Americans from the political process. The tax required voters to pay before they could vote, and many African Americans and poor whites could not afford the tax. While the tax was only one dollar, this came at a time when the average Floridian only made $200 a year.
The story of the African American struggle for equality in Florida continues into room 210. As you enter the room, on the wall to your right is an artifact from the “Jim Crow” period in Florida. This restroom door, with the words “White Ladies”, is a pointed reminder of segregation in Florida. It was located in another state building in Tallahassee. Between 1895 and 1915, the Florida Legislature passed a series of Jim Crow laws requiring most public activities to be segregated; this included everything from separate waiting rooms, even to separate bathrooms, as evidenced by this door. African Americans gradually demanded equal rights and opposed the Jim Crow laws. This struggle for civil rights lasted for most of the twentieth century. Notice the photograph with the sign “Virginia Beach for Negroes.” At the time, the opening of Virginia Beach was considered a victory for Miami’s African American community, who previously had no place to swim.
The other side of the exhibit case in room 210 tells about the struggle of Native Americans in Florida’s political process. It is believed that Native Americans came to Florida over 12,000 years ago, and there were many different Native American tribes in Florida at the time of European contact. By the 1760s, Creek Indians had migrated to Florida, where they were eventually known as Seminoles, which meant “wild or untamed people.” The United States acquired Florida in 1821 and in 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River. Most Seminoles, however, chose to fight. The “Seminole Wars” were one of the longest and most costly wars in American history as the U.S. removed about 3,000 Native Americans to the west. The few remaining Seminoles in Florida successfully avoided removal by remaining in the Everglades and resisting efforts to assimilate or be counted. The construction of highways through the Everglades ended isolation for the Seminoles, and by the 1920s, they began to interact more with Florida’s government and society. Many Seminoles began selling arts and crafts, wrestling alligators and “living on display” to earn a living. Tribal leaders wrote tribal constitutions enabling state and federal recognition. The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Constitution was established in 1957. In 1961, the Miccosukee Tribal Council adopted its present constitution. The artifacts in this case were donated by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Prior to 1901, rooms 209 and 210 were part of the Chamber of the Florida House of Representatives. In addition to all the Legislative history enacted in this area, four of Florida’s six Constitutional Conventions where also held in this room resulting in four Constitutions for Florida. The 1861 Constitutional Convention passed the Ordinance of Succession at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1896, a long and contentious political fight for the election of a United States Senator, held in the old House Chamber, gained national attention and encouraged the movement toward popular elections of Senators, which finally happened in 1911 with the passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.