As with any person, place, or institution of note, there are a multitude of myths that attach themselves to their histories through various avenues. They can range from fun anecdotes to harmful misrepresentations. The nemesis of myth is fact, and for archivists that evidence means primary (contemporary to the time) sources and other materials. These in combination with context go a long way to prove or disprove a myth.
Therefore, every campus has its own mythos, and several at Florida State surround Francis W. Eppes. While there is a much more detailed story in regard to our founding that can’t be fully examined here, we can look at a couple of examples where facts and fiction merge to create misinformation and where archives can give us a clearer vision of the past.
Francis Eppes donated land and money for the establishment of the Seminary West of the Suwannee in Tallahassee; Francis Eppes is the founder of Florida State University.
Eppes, a slave owner who relocated to the area in 1829 to start a plantation, was the Intendant (mayor) of Tallahassee during the 1850’s when legislation was drafted for the creation of two seminaries of higher learning in Florida. Two offers were made by the City of Tallahassee to entice the then General Assembly of Florida to locate the Seminary West of the Suwannee (our predecessor) here. The first offer was rejected, and Eppes as Intendant at the time made the second, improved offer on behalf of the City.
The records of the General Assembly of Florida are located at the State Archives of Florida and clearly document the process.
Over time, the facts became muddled and the incorrect perception that Eppes donated his own land and money to found the Seminary became true.
In fact, until the mid 1990’s, Eppes did not enter the lexicon of FSU’s history in such a profound role. Of note are the histories written for the university’s Bulletins & Catalogues beginning in 1890’s where he is absent.
The first mention of Eppes in a founding role, and as the grandson of Thomas Jefferson comes from the 1994 investiture speech given by President Talbot “Sandy” D’ Alemberte. Shortly after in 1995, a formal request was made by a previous FSU staff member in the form of a letter and self written biography of Eppes, suggesting that his contributions be recognized by naming the Psychology Building after him. As far as the records shows, the decision was made to do so, and relied on that information with no primary source research having been conducted by either the letter’s author or the university.
Eppes is not without credit, as he was the President of the Board of Education of the Seminary from 1860 – 1868, and guided the school through the Civil War and early Reconstruction. He was also a Justice of the Peace and documented founder of the Episcopal Church in Tallahassee.
Perhaps the combination of his offer on behalf of the city, his donations to the founding of the church, and the connection to Thomas Jefferson fueled Eppes’ new legacy and are where fact and myth crossed paths in regard to the Seminary as we approached our 150th Anniversary in 2001? The statue of Eppes is installed in front of the Westcott Building in 2002 and the campus continues forward with Eppes as the founder, and that myth attaches itself to FSU in a permanent way.
In 2017, after an intense period of racial violence in the United States and the car attack on protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, student protests began here at FSU. President Thrasher convened a panel to delve into the subject of naming. The primary focus was in regard to Eppes as a slave owning founder and the segregationist Florida Supreme Court Justice B.K. Roberts, for whom the College of Law building is named.
At the request of the President’s Advisory Panel on Namings and Recognitions, and with the assistance of the Records Administrator at the City of Tallahassee, I was able to trace the actual deed for the properties that were offered to the General Assembly, proving the city put forth the property.
A historian was also invited to present his research on Eppes and also found that there was no evidence that he was the founder, or that his funds or property were offered up.
In addition, myself and Paige Downey, our Heritage & University Archives Operations Supervisor, conducted an intensive review of our archives to provide documentation for the duration of the Panel’s work from 2017-2018. During one of the later meetings of the Panel, President Emeritus D’Alemberte stated that in regard to Eppes, he trusted what was provided to him by his staff, but in retrospect should have done further research. Those minutes are located here.
President Emeritus D’Alemberte was one of the most honorable people I had met at FSU. His acknowledgement of his part in perpetuating the idea that Eppes solely founded FSU, speaks to his deep respect for the truth and a humility that was part of his personality. He cites the research done by Mike Rashotte, a retired FSU professor, as one of the reasons for his comments. That research used primary sources from a variety of institutions, including our own Heritage & University Archives.
It was very difficult to write this piece in 1000 words or less – our history is rich and complex, and spins off into many threads. The important thing is that we continue to seek out the facts and acknowledge our history, for better or worse. Archives are essential to that work.