Tallahassee, FL. There have always been connections between Tallahassee, Florida and Nashville, Tennessee. They started with Andrew Jackson. When Jackson invaded Spanish Florida twice at the end of the War of 1812, he brought as members of his military unit, men who would guide the destiny of the territory after the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty. The streets in town are still named for some of them: Jackson Bluff Road, Call Street, DuVal Street, and others. Florida State University’s first president came from Nashville, and in 2017 the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce made a junket to see what it could learn from Music City. And, of course, there’s me.
There are reasons why I want to tell this story in some detail, having nothing to do with slavery, statues, or the Confederacy, or not much anyway. As I learned growing up in Nashville, an institution like Vanderbilt University or like Florida State University (both of which count me as an alumnus), simply cannot function in a healthy way in isolation from the larger community around it. The university cannot jerk the community around, like Vanderbilt’s continual empty promises to take its athletic programs seriously and FSU’s disrespect for that portion of the Tallahassee community which does not accept that one of the university founder’s life as a slaveowner and Confederate sympathizer should disqualify him from the family of man, all the while asking for money and loyalty.
If you become an institution like Vanderbilt is, and to which FSU aspires, it’s easy to be cocky, to think you really don’t have to take cognizance of all those non-university folk out there who would buy your football tickets if you made them feel welcome. Is FSU going to become like Vanderbilt? I certainly hope not. Nearly 20 years ago, one of FSU’s great historians, Joe Richardson, a national authority on Reconstruction and an FSU graduate, told me he believed that he would be the last graduate of his own university to be hired to teach there. If that has indeed turned out to be the case—and I think it has in the history department—then FSU is sending a message that it is better than we are.
I grew up in Nashville, and everybody hated Vanderbilt. If you saw Ken Burns’s Country Music earlier this year, you kind of understand why. Vanderbilt is private and small—enrollment about 6,000—but it is the second largest employer in the city. Nashville is Tennessee’s state capital, so there is government. My family had close ties to Vanderbilt; my father taught there for a while; my uncle was provost. But Vanderbilt always isolated itself from Nashville. Another uncle (and also another graduate), used to say that Vanderbilt thought it was too good for Nashville. Perhaps that is why if you go to a home Vanderbilt football game even today, the opponents’ fans will outnumber those of the home team three or four to one. The fact that Vanderbilt football usually sucks may have something to do with it, too.
When I was in school there, the mutual hostility was plain. What other school makes the conscious decision to diminish the reputations of its most famous alumni? In this case, those would be the Fugitive poets of the 1920s who included the U.S.’ first poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren, and their successors, the Agrarians. The Agrarians had a few things to say about the dangers of corporate capitalism, which given the university’s name, did not sit well. Members of these groups were essentially pushed off campus and today you would be hard pressed to find any record of them outside the Vanderbilt library.
It really wasn’t until twenty or so years ago that Vanderbilt realized the importance of the Nashville community, and then only because the hostility in the local and national press was becoming louder; it began to reach out to the music industry, and it broadened its admissions policy—particularly to international students. When Nashville’s only independent bookstore closed, Vanderbilt teamed with Barnes & Noble to move its own campus bookstore to the edge of campus, inviting in the larger community. In addition, its hospital began setting up clinics in disadvantaged neighborhoods and offering to help. The jury is still out as to whether this has been enough (and Vanderbilt has taken several steps backwards, such as refusing to guarantee the autonomy of Christian student groups, thereby driving them from campus), but at least something got Vanderbilt’s attention.
The reason I bring this up is because I have lived in Tallahassee for the last twenty years, which is also a state capital, and in contrast to Nashville, has a major university whose sports programs largely keep the city financially viable. In recent years and in some specific instances, FSU seems to have decided to alienate a large segment of the population by a series of misjudgments and downright foolishness in which the president has played a part. What if what Gene Williams, the publisher of the on-line FSU sports platform “Warchant” says is true: “FSU could face estimated athletic department losses of $27 million for the fall and spring semesters the coming year. That is on top of $4 million in estimated losses due to 2020 spring sports cancellations. How can Seminole athletics survive this uncertain future?” It could be that the coronavirus pandemic and other anxieties make most people shrug everything else off; it could also give them a lot of spare time to think about things. Perhaps with this in mind, the Atlantic Coast Conference on July 29 announced a “10 +1” football season to begin September 7. Despite the fact that Florida is second in the nation in COVID-19 cases, football will be played. The sigh of relief from FSU was palpable, not only because of the money but because the school is counting on sports to distract from the other ways the university is disrespecting segments of Tallahassee.
But this article is not about FSU football. It is about that larger relationship of the university to the Tallahassee community.
John Thrasher, 76, a Vietnam veteran, former Speaker of the Florida House, former member of the Senate, and former chairman of the state Republican party, has always lived and breathed FSU. He has a building named after him at the College of Medicine. It was his life’s ambition to lead the university after he graduated from it. When he finally applied for the presidency in 2014, members of the faculty and the student body vocally opposed him because of his political views and the fact that he was not a “true academic,” like Dr. Eric Barron, whose departure for Penn State made the position vacant.
In order to calm things some, the university held a series of town halls that were simply vicious, in which Thrasher was labeled a racist, homophobe, and all the epithets to which Republicans have become accustomed. Members of the community who attended some of these meetings left in tears at the vehemence of the accusations. Still, largely because of his political connections and ability to get money from his former colleagues in the legislature, Thrasher got the job. His first few years surprised everybody; he did not tamper with academic standards, or mess around with the faculty’s freedom to complain about whatever members wanted to complain about. When a shooter went on a rampage at the university’s Strozier Library, he showed a degree of strength and empathy that won plaudits from the whole Tallahassee community, on and off campus.
If you are the president of a large public university in the United States (FSU’s enrollment is more than 40,000; Tallahassee’s population is about 199,000), your chief job is to raise money, and to keep those parts of your school that produce revenue doing just that. That means college football. FSU football, both symbolically and economically, sustains the community. There is always a tug of war in major universities over what gets funded, and football revenue can help pay for a lot of things. Even before Thrasher took over, faculty members were surprised to find the phones in their offices removed at the same time Doak Campbell Stadium got an $81 million facelift. When football coach Jimbo Fisher, who took FSU to the 2013 national championship, abruptly resigned to go to Texas A & M, Thrasher reportedly took it personally—so did most people in Tallahassee. The aftermath has been messy. Thrasher hired Willie Taggart from the University of Oregon to replace him, amid not-so-subtle inferences among some in the fan base that the key factor had been Taggart’s race and not his record; when Thrasher fired him midway through the 2019 season (only his second), others argued that Taggart would not have been let go so quickly if he had been white.
Among the questions outside observers began to ask midway through Thrasher’s tenure is, why has the faculty been so quiet? Yes, yes, he hasn’t tampered with their domain, but he still stands for things that most of them do not. Among the major financial benefactors of the university was “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, a self-described “psychopath” who put Sunbeam into bankruptcy, cost thousands of jobs, was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and was prohibited from leading a major U.S. corporation again. A beaming Thrasher took the checks, posed for photographs, and seemingly asked no questions. Neither did anyone on the faculty, the board of trustees, or the media.
Thrasher’s stated intentions since he took over at FSU have been to make it into a “Top 20” university. What Thrasher almost certainly means is “research university,” because that means corporate and government contracts. He is certainly not alone among university presidents in wanting that. Still, despite the difficulties with the football program, and the embrace of people like Al Dunlap, both the faculty at FSU and the larger Tallahassee community have, by and large, been supportive. The answer as to why he has maintained internal institutional support seems to be that the faculty and the small segment of students who care are perfectly happy to lose the telephones in their offices, and have characters like Al Dunlap rehabilitate his reputation at FSU, in exchange for winning two wars: the one on the football field and other in the cultural clashes. The first one is still an open question; the second seems to be going swimmingly, at least for now.
Francis Eppes was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson. In 1829, he drove a coffle of slaves from Virginia down to Middle Florida and settled in Tallahassee, where he became a man of influence, being elected “intendant” (mayor) six times. In 1851, he was one of a handful of Tallahassee citizens who petitioned the state legislature to create the “Seminary West of the Suwanee River.” He reportedly gave some of the land. All of the men who helped found what would eventually be named Florida State University after World War II were slaveholders. Each one who lived long enough, including Francis Eppes, supported the Confederacy in the Civil War. After the war, Eppes moved to what would later be Orlando, died in 1881, and is buried there.
In the late 1990s, when former American Bar Association President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte was President of FSU, he gained a kind of fondness for Francis Eppes. What he liked was the symbolism of Thomas Jefferson’s grandson helping to found his university and the connection with the Democratic Party’s founding, (D’Alemberte was a lifelong Democrat). So D’Alemberte decided to market Eppes as the “founder” of FSU. He commissioned nationally recognized sculptor Edward Jonas (an FSU alumnus who had already sculpted a lot of statues for FSU, including the Seminole warrior Osceola and, later, legendary football coach Bobby Bowden) to create a statue of Eppes, sitting on a bench as if he were reading a book or talking to a student. At the same time D’Alemberte commissioned a trophy, the Jefferson-Eppes Trophy. Every year for 25 years it has been given to the winner of the football game between Eppes’ university, FSU, and Jefferson’s, the University of Virginia. The statue, which was unveiled in 2001 (the “Seminary’s” 150th anniversary), was placed in front of FSU’s Administration building, The James D. Westcott Building, where for 16 years it became a favorite place for students and members of the community to come for photographs with “Francis.”
It took about 10 years for any one to question D’Alemberte’s choice for university “founder.” By 2015 members of the very small, but very loud, FSU chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society—a re-emergence of the Sixties organization of the same name—began to question the choice of Eppes on the grounds that he was a slaveowner. In 2017, the student body took a vote on whether to keep the Eppes statue in front of the Westcott Building; 71% of the students voted to keep it. Still, the SDS made a lot of noise and began to get some support from the faculty. Thrasher was finally pressured into creating a 16-person committee to study names on campus. The committee, which included two historians, apparently did not consider that all of the persons who collaborated with Eppes in lobbying the legislature for the “Seminary” were slaveowners, and they came back with three recommendations: move the Eppes statue from its place in front of the administration building; rename FSU’s Criminal Justice Building, which was also named for Eppes; and rename the FSU law school (which is named for B.K. Roberts, a state supreme court justice who opposed desegregation).
To its credit, the school had a series of community meetings, in which the consensus was that nobody much would care if the law school was renamed, or the Eppes Building, but that moving the statue would not only be an attack on one of the school’s founders (and family, since Eppes’ descendants still live in Tallahassee), but on the integrity of D’Alemberte, who commissioned it, as well as Edward Jonas, who sculpted it, not to mention leaving a very large gap in FSU’s institutional history. Somebody was responsible for the idea of FSU, right?
D’Alemberte, in his 80s, but still a practicing attorney who had earned a great deal of respect and affection throughout the state, showed up at several of these meetings and explained that he really wasn’t trying to celebrate a slaveowner, but the founding of his university. But Thrasher’s committee ignored him (shortly before D’Alemberte died last year, Thrasher did unveil a statue of him in front of the law school.) In typical fashion perhaps, five years after the controversy heated up, the two items that nobody particularly resisted—the renaming of the Eppes Building and the law school—have not been done, while the thing that has generated a lot of ill feelings toward Thrasher and the university—the removal of the Eppes statue—has been done, not once but twice, leading many in Tallahassee to question Thrasher’s leadership. During its last two sessions, the Florida legislature has refused to give permission to rename the law school, but Thrasher promises to try again next March, and while it was his decision not to rename the Criminal Justice Building, the SDS is still working on that one, too.
This is the place for a word about statues. A statue is not history (though there can be some debate about that if it is a statue from ancient Rome or Greece, for example). At most a statue may be an interpretation of history, which I suppose is another term for memory. The interpretation that the people who commissioned J.E.B. Stuart, riding triumphantly on his massive bronze horse in Richmond, wanted to send is pretty clear. Interpretations change and memory is increasingly contested. Statues get moved (though, one hopes, not destroyed). According to D’Alemberte and Jonas, the Francis Eppes statue was intended not as history but as a commemoration of the university’s founding and its educational purposes. It’s a statement about the goods of education and a university that claims to foster it. Nobody else whom D’Alemberte could have chosen to represent the founding of FSU would have been without Eppes’ baggage. It is telling that those who agitated for its removal didn’t even try to come up with a replacement that actually had anything to do with the school’s creation. Many of the opponents of removing the Eppes statue argue that refusing to allow a public acknowledgement that very flawed human beings did this one fine thing, is to refuse to acknowledge the university itself. If, Val Beron (described several weeks ago as an “SDS leader”) is correct that “No one who participated in the depraved institution of slavery should be honored at FSU or elsewhere,” then you can’t honor anything they did, including founding FSU. The same logic applies to the flawed founders of the United States, from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington. Most of the activists around the country have been very honest about that. There are many people in Tallahassee who reject that logic, and the message Thrasher seems to be sending in acceding to those who insist upon it.
Once John Thrasher named his committee, he had to follow its recommendations. Not to do so would have elicited charges of disrespect and certainly racism. The Eppes statue was removed from in front of the Westcott Building during the night of July 20, 2018, and put into storage for 11 months. The reaction on social media was significant; articles and letters (including one by me) called upon Thrasher to resign for being bullied by a very small radical fringe of students. The Eppes family hired a lawyer who demanded that the statue be put back in public view, if not in front of Westcott, then somewhere comparable. Edward Jonas, the sculptor, told the press that he felt violated by FSU’s actions. “Moving the statue totally changes the narrative of the statue from being about a vision for education into a symbol of slavery and slave ownership,” Jonas said.
The reaction in Tallahassee was somewhat split along racial lines. Tallahassee is 34-percent Black. At least some of FSU’s larger and more faithful donors threatened to withhold contributions from the school. On the other hand, County Commissioner Bill Proctor, a descendant of Tallahassee’s most prominent free Black family before the Civil War, wrote a column congratulating Thrasher. (It is worth noting that a sizeable portion of Tallahassee’s Black community apparently shrugged at the controversy. Some of that may be because Tallahassee is also the home of Florida A&M University, one of the most storied HBCUs in the country, so they didn’t feel it was their fight). The Tallahassee Historical Society began running missing persons pictures of Eppes in its monthly newsletter. Over the course of a year, while the Eppes statue sat in storage, Thrasher kept hoping the controversy would go away. Finally, at Christmas time in 2018, he felt safe enough to tell a radio audience that, yes, he planned to put the statue back in public view. He may have been hoping that no one was listening.
On May 13, 2019 students and faculty woke up to discover that the Eppes statue was back on campus, this time on one of the university’s interior green spaces, still prominent, but not so prominent. It now had a plaque explaining that while Eppes certainly played a role in the founding of the university, he was not THE founder, and oh, yes, he was a slaveowner. The statue went back up exactly a week prior to the death of Sandy D’Alemberte. No one knows whether Thrasher told him it was going to happen, but it’s a reasonable guess that he did. The statue’s new location was one of the ones approved by the Eppes family, whose pressure on Thrasher over the last year had been substantial. The SDS was outraged and promised yet another effort to get rid of it altogether. The Eppes family blasted Thrasher for a lack of leadership in originally caving to a tiny but vocal contingent, something that family members repeated almost exactly a year later, on July 23 of this year, when the statue disappeared yet again, this time after the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests resulting from it. This second removal came one month after the death Edward Jonas, so now Thasher did not have to worry about offending either him or Sandy D’Alemberte.
Although there is no public indication that there was any corporate or institutional pressure on Thrasher to make Eppes disappear again, the campus SDS and the Black Student Union insisted the statue had to be removed completely from campus, and again Thrasher complied, at the same time creating a new 30-member “inclusivity and anti-racism” committee with only one member not affiliated with the university, and whose recommendations he is likely to follow. Social media took off again, with two thirds of the comments opposing Thrasher’s move; one of those protesting wrote that “removal of the statue … is incomprehensible to thinking people” and suggested that members of the community should “chip in and repay the Eppes family the present value of what he donated.” Attorney Pace Allen, a member of the Eppes family, said Thrasher had showed “zero leadership” and that “not to stand up to the small mob is to stand with the mob.” The one thing everybody agreed on, pro-statue or anti-statue, was that Thrasher has come out of this whole mess looking weak. Some people asked what he would do when the SDS realized that Bobby Bowden had endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and that the Seminoles had owned slaves. Both are memorialized in statues near the stadium, and, of course, Florida State University’s sports teams are the “Seminoles.” As for Thrasher, he signed a one-year contract extension at FSU at the beginning of the year. No one knows if it will be his last.
FSU is not the only institution of higher learning in Tallahassee, but it is by far the most influential. The student body is only six percent Black. A former member of the football team recently posted a petition demanding the renaming of Doak Campbell Stadium. Campbell was FSU’s president beginning in the early 1940s and saw its transition to a coeducational university. While there is no apparent record that Campbell actively fought the integration of the university, he didn’t encourage it, either, which is enough to lead to calls to rename the stadium. Thrasher has appointed FSU’s athletic director to study the situation and report to his new committee, which means the stadium will probably be renamed. One of the first suggestions was for the stadium to be named for Bobby Bowden, who is still alive. But it is unlikely that the SDS would agree to a Trump supporter.
Recently news broke that John Thrasher had terminated FSU’s continuing service agreement with Childers Construction, one of Tallahassee’s largest builders, which has undertaken over $100 million worth of work for the university. The reason: Childers’s vice president, Sam Childers, a former FSU football player, had attended a Halloween engagement party five years ago for his daughter dressed as reggae singer Bob Marley. Someone had posted the pictures on Facebook. The instigator of the latest controversy was a 2010 graduate of FSU named Sarah Howard, who works for the ACLU in Nashville. Howard, as quoted in the Tallahassee Democrat, wrote Thrasher, making the claim that Childers’s costume violated FSU’s equal opportunity and non-discrimination statements, claimed that Childers was a racist, and said that if FSU did not terminate the contract and all future work it would “cement FSU as a complacent bystander to oppression,” an absurd claim designed to do exactly what it did: cause Thrasher to fold.
Childers, for his part, groveled, writing a letter of apology, and promising to take an ethnic sensitivity class. Thrasher was unmoved, repeating one of his favorite mantras, that Childers had “violated FSU’s core values.” Sam Childers is a respected figure in Tallahassee whose company has built churches and corporate headquarters, as well as building and maintaining a substantial portion of the FSU campus. To destroy a twenty-year working relationship on the basis of one private event years ago struck people in Tallahassee as excessive, to say the least, not to mention destructive of all those “employees and employers” toward whom Sarah Howard professed concern in her statements to the media. Shortly after the news hit of Thrasher’s decision some members of the community began discussing a petition to call for his ouster, and one has now been posted. Thrasher’s decision is yet another indicator of a growing distance between the college and its community.
If there is ever a county that fit the definition of historian Ira Berlin’s phrase “slave society,” it was Leon County before the Civil War, where slaves vastly outnumbered whites and where the founders and leaders were all slaveowners. Tallahassee and Leon County will celebrate their mutual bicentennial in 2024; already people involved in planning it are asking just who the political leaders and student activists in that year will allow them to acknowledge, much less honor.
This article ends where it began, with a question: is Florida State University a part of the larger Tallahassee community, or does it choose, as did Vanderbilt for many decades, to self-isolate on the presumption that it is better than the people whose support it desperately needs? Every day, it seems, John Thrasher is answering that question.