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For better legislators, just add state history lesson

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TIMES CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF
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By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 23, 2002


The 30 newly elected members of the state House spent two days in boot camp this week, at seminars ranging from workplace harassment to press relations.

What was not on the program, but should have been, was a short walk across the courtyard in Tallahassee to the Old Capitol, home of the new Florida Center of Political History and Governance.

As term limits chip away at the last few bits of historical perspective in the Legislature, a brief lesson in Florida history seems as relevant as a seminar on "finding legislative and agency information on the Internet."

When today's lawmakers reflect on the old days, they're probably talking about 1998.

The new speaker of the House, Rep. Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, has been in office six years. Allen Morris, the former House clerk who for decades was a Florida history book sprung to life, died last April.

The center takes the long view.

Paid for with $2.8-million of tax dollars through the Legislature, it combines artifacts, archival photos and other materials to offer a primer on Florida's vivid and unsettling history.

One is tempted to think of old Florida as quaint, with bathing beauties sipping orange juice and cattle roaming dusty dirt roads.

The exhibits here will dispel such simplistic notions.

History is told with frankness, especially on the subject of race.

On one corner wall is a list of victims of lynchings. "1944, Live Oak -- 15-year-old Willie James lynched after sending a Christmas card to a white female co-worker."

Another display focuses on the night in Groveland in 1949 when Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot two black men who were suspected of raping a white woman, killing one of them.

The typewritten statement of Walter Irvin, who survived McCall's bullets, is on display. "When they were beating me, they said to me, 'N-----, you the one that picked up the white girl last night. I said to them, what white girl?"

His death sentence was commuted to life by Gov. LeRoy Collins, and Irvin was paroled in 1968.

There is a menacing photo of a group of hooded Klansmen, two of them perched on the hood of a Kaiser sedan at a 1956 rally, headed for who-knows-where.

"There was a very strong feeling that it really ought to reflect the reality of Florida's history," said former Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, co-chairman, with former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, of the Old Capitol Steering Committee .

A mock-up of the governor's office includes a rolltop desk used in 1902 by Gov. William Sherman Jennings, cousin of three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The modern technology includes an interactive TV studio where touring students can play Dan Rather.

There's also an exhibit on the history of the "Pork Chop Gang" of rural lawmakers who resisted one-man, one-vote reapportionment until 1967. Clarence Earl Gideon's handwritten petition to the U.S. Supreme Court is shown. It led to a precedent-setting ruling requiring the state to appoint a lawyer for a defendant unable to afford one.

There's a lot more here, but it barely whets the appetite for so much that's not here. The rise of a true two-party system. Exploitation of farm workers. Florida's role in presidential nominating conventions. The importance football plays in the state's politics. The things that make Florida unique.

Fewer than one in four Floridians was born here, and that alone speaks to the need for residents to learn more about their adopted home.

"We wanted it to reflect the vast character that we as Floridians share, so that we can inform others who we are, and from whence we came," said one of the center's champions, Katherine Harris, the former Secretary of State who was just elected to Congress.

-- Steve Bousquet is deputy chief of the Times' Tallahassee bureau.

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