About the Series

Photo of Thomas De Saille Tucker Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

Photo of Thomas De Saille Tucker
Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

Thomas De Saille Tucker was a native West African originating from Sierra Leone. At the age of 12 missionaries from the Mendi Mission brought him to America. The Mendi Mission was established in Sierra Leone in connection with the Amistad revolt. When the thirty-five surviving Africans returned to the Colony of Sierra Leone, the Amistad Committee instructed the Americans to start a ‘Mendi Mission’ in Sierra Leone. He later attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Established in 1833, Oberlin College was one of the very first colleges in America to educate women and by 1900 one-third of all African American graduates of predominantly white institutions in the United States had graduated from Oberlin. Many of the early leaders of black colleges received their education at Oberlin. While at Oberlin Tucker took leave in 1862 to teach at a school for freedmen in Virginia.After graduating from Oberlin Tucker achieved a law degree at Straight University in New Orleans. The law school only existed between 1874 and 1886. According to the American Missionary Journal, by 1982, 35 whites and 15 blacks had graduated from the law department. Straight University later became Straight College and eventually was absorbed by the Dillard University. Not long after receiving a law degree Tucker became a member of the Florida Bar and established his own law partnership in Pensacola, Florida. With the help of former Florida Legislator Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs, who saw to the passing of the legislation that established the college, Tucker led the Normal College for Colored Students for 14 years before he was forced to resign. Moving to Maryland he returned to practicing law before his death two years later in 1903.


  • Photo Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

    Photo Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs
    Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

    In 1887 the Florida legislature established a State Normal (teacher) College for Colored Students in Tallahassee, Florida and a separate State Normal (teacher) College for White Students in Defuniak Springs, Florida. This legislation was negotiated by state representative Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs. It should be noted that his father Johnathan C. Gibbs served as Florida’s Secretary of State (1868-73) and Superintendent of Public Instruction (1873-1874) before his “untimely” death in 1874. No other black person would get to experience such a role as the Period of Reconstruction ended quickly and those blacks placed in positions of public trust were disenfranchised just as quickly.
  • On October 3, 1887, the Normal College for Coloreds began on Copeland Street where Florida State University is currently located. White supporters thought it appropriate to provide vocational skills rather than a liberal arts education. Thus the beginnings resembled a vocational school more so than a two or four-year college.
  •  When the “Colored” Normal School began Tucker was appointed its first president. It began in an atmosphere of “separate, but equal,” which meant that both the Colored and White schools would receive the same level of funding.
  • Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs joined Tucker as First Assistant and instructor.
  • The school started with 15 students and eventually averaged 35 daily attendances during that first term.
  • In Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University: A Centennial History, 1987, Dr. Leedell W. Neyland writes:

    In response to the persistent demand by Tucker for increased dormitory facilities and others of the college, a legislative committee was appointed to visit the school and ascertain the conditions, progress, and outlook at the institution. In anticipation of the committee’s visit, Tucker had the entire school in a state of readiness. Realizing that blacks had to demonstrate their abilities as justification for continued state support in education, he arranged for recitations before the committee by the various departments of the school.

  • Between 1890 and 1891 Tucker annexed the present building to add room for student dormitories.
  • FAMU did not begin as a land grant institution. Though the first Morrill Act of 1862 established the land grant act in support of institutions such as the University of Florida, it was not until the second Morrill Act of 1890 that FAMU was able to take advantage of the opportunity.
  • On August 30, 1890, State legislation passed authorizing use of funds under the Morill Act of 1890, a federal land grant program that on an annual basis provided substantial federal funds in support of certain colleges that gave agricultural and mechanical training. Under the unwritten “Separate, But Equal” application the State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students was able to share in the funds received mostly by predominantly white schools.
  • In 1891 the college was relocated to its present location and suited with men and women dormitories, recreation facilities, a laboratory, mechanic arts hall, barns, and other buildings.
  • The very first graduation commencement was held in 1892 with 5 graduates, who were each required during the ceremony to give a recitation. Diplomas were awarded by the Governor (Fleming). Ernest Vidal Tucker, the son of President, was among the graduates.
  • Portrait of William N. Sheats Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

    Portrait of William N. Sheats
    Courtesy of State Archives of Florida

    In 1893 William N. Sheats became the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 1895 he enacted his own policy prohibiting the teaching or boarding of whites and blacks in the same class or building. Though it was invalidated by the courts, the spirit of this policy remained.

  •  In 1897 a legislative committee visited the college and afterwards provided a glowing report. The report acknowledged that the student enrollment had grown from 15 to 209. Still in its infancy the college had provided one-seventh of the state’s teachers at the black public schools. The physical plant had increased from one building in 1887 to eight major structures. This included the purchase of an additional twenty acres and a cottage.
  • By the end of Tuckers term expenditures had grown from $4,000 in 1887 to $24,000 in 1900, of which only $5,565 was appropriated by the state. In comparison the Normal College for Whites in Defuniak Springs had only grown to 92 students, but received a state appropriation of $12,648. It appears the difference in funding may have been due to the expanded Defuniak program, which included a fully supported emphasis on academic instruction. This was just the beginning of the separate and unequal treatment that the Tallahassee college known today as FAMU would face throughout its history.
  • With the passing of Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs on October 31, 1898, Tucker lost his longtime assistant and perhaps his greatest ally.
  • Throughout the south White educators actively aligned with the ideas of Booker T. Washington in the belief that blacks should pursue vocational training, something believed to be more useful to blacks. Tucker was mindful of this charge and attempted to meet the demand without compromising what he saw as the need for an academic foundation.
  • Viewing Tucker’s priorities as misplaced, Sheats set out to undermine Tucker’s leadership. Though the school continued to make progress with newer venues and increased enrollment Tucker’s achievements would not be acknowledged.
  • Over time Sheats and the Board of Education required Tucker report all teacher hiring or firing and student disciplinary procedures at which time the Board could override his decisions. Whereas for most of his tenure Tucker made purchases independent of Board review, all purchases had to be approved by the Board. Tucker requested funds from the legislature for new and updated facilities and increased teacher pay. Repeatedly his requests were denied.
  • Dr. Neyland notes that from the earliest years teacher turnover was high though through his research he was unable to find a documented reason for it.
  •  It is clear in the writings that the Superintendent Sheats supported educating blacks, but undermined Tucker solely because he disagreed with Tucker’s academic agenda. As a result, in 1900 the Superintendent presented to the Board of Education a 16-point list of ambiguous complaints. Here are some interesting excerpts from the list taken from Neyland’s work:

4. He selects from the Northern States, chiefly, teachers knowing little of the true conditions of Southern Negroes; not in sympathy with them or with Southern institutions, hence they make but little effort to better conditions of the race, but work for salary only.
12. He fails to get hold upon any significant number of his pupils, making a spirit of grumbling almost universal. Large numbers leave every year threatening not to return and decrying rather than sounding the praises of the institution. A constant die-back is evident in the attendance results from the want of desire to return, and is evidence of a lack of proper spirit in the school.
14. He has not been regardful of law in knowingly applying funds to purposes prohibited in the law granting them; abusing the confidences reposed in him by the Board, by using these funds for the erection of a house, for the employment of a bookkeeper and of teachers of the branches prohibited, and by making presents to private friends of articles purchased by these funds; thereby subjecting the State Board to charges of misappropriation of funds.

  • Sheats enlisted relatively new teachers to testify against Tucker. With the Board in tow Tucker was notified that he was being replaced

NEXT: Nathan B. Young [1901-1922]


  1. Abraham, A. (1998). the amistad revolt: an historical legacy of sierra leone & the United States. Pamphlet published by the United States Information Service in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1987. Republished by the United States Information Agency in 1998. Retrieved from on May 19, 2016.
  2. Alexander, W. S. (Aug 1882). The Freedmen: Straight University, New Orleans, The American Missionary Volume 0036 Issue 8, pp. 234-235.
  3. history of oberlin (Nov 2007). Office of Public Programs, Oberlin College. Retrieved from on May 27, 2016.
  4. National Research Council: Committee on the Future of the Colleges of Agriculture in the Land Grant System; Board on Agriculture (1995). Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: A Profile. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
  5. Neyland, L. W. & Riley, J. W. (1963). the history of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, University of Florida Press, Gainesville. Retrieved from on May 27, 2016.

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