On several occasions people have said to me that no one really pushed them to go to college, then suggested that this had been my experience as well. My response was always the same. As long as I could remember, my father and his sister, Aunt Lutie, would bring out a small autograph book and tell me that this was from their mother’s, my grandmother’s (born Lela Virginia Farnell) time in college, and I would be going to college just like her. When I was old enough to ask what school, I was told it was a “big school in Florida,” but neither my father nor his sister could remember what school. All Aunt Lutie knew was that it was in Tallahassee, and that it used to be called Tallahassee Normal. I lived in New York; I had never been to Florida; my father had never seen Florida; we had no idea what school it might be. Somehow, we didn’t really talk about the world of HBCUs. Certainly, we knew about Howard University, Fisk University, Lincoln University, Hampton University (then, Hampton Institute), and Tuskegee, but there were many others we did not know. I imagine if my parents heard their names they would have recognized them, but I don’t think they thought of them as a collection of schools under the specific umbrella that we do now, the “Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)”. Even though Aunt Lutie did go to visit family in Florida, her thoughts were primarily on family business and activities. She apparently wasn’t focused on college names.
FAMU was founded in 1887, in Tallahassee, Leon County, Florida. “Tallahassee Normal,” as my family called it, was one of two schools (one for whites, one for blacks) established that year by the Florida State Legislature for the education of teachers, and the first state supported college for African Americans in Florida. My grandmother attended between 1889-1892.
My grandmother’s autograph book was signed not only by fellow students, and teacher, “H. A. Miller,” from Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Virginia, but also by: the founding President, Thomas DeSaille Tucker (“T. DeS. Tucker”); his wife Charity Bishop Tucker (“Mrs. C. B. Tucker”); English teacher and second assistant, Mrs. Ida V. Gibbs (“Mrs. Ida A. Gibbs,”), who was the wife of Thomas Van Rensalaer Gibbs, the first assistant. It Thomas Gibbs’ initial efforts in the Florida state legislature that ultimately led to the founding of the school.
Being too young for the Normal Course (a student had to be at least 16 years of age in order to enter the Normal Course) my grandmother was most likely in either the Academic Course or the Preparatory Course which preceded the Normal Course. Since records from that time were only kept on graduates, and my grandmother did not stay long enough to graduate, no record exists to support the family tradition that she “attended college” except her autograph book.
Despite the lack of other corroborating evidence, entries in the autograph book, Norris dated 3 June 1892, and Professor and Mrs. Tucker, each dated 25 June 1892 indicate that my grandmother, Lela, was probably a student participant in the three-day commencement activities of the historic first graduating class, then called officially, “The State Normal and Industrial College,” from 7-9 June 1892, with the graduation itself being held on 9 June, at the Munro Opera House. Whether or not my grandmother returned to classes in Tallahassee in the Fall of 1892 is not known, but on 12 February 1893, she married my grandfather, William Gainer Williams, in Live Oak, Suwannee County, where both the Farnell and Williams families lived. With that, her college career was definitively over.
My college career would begin almost 100 years later, in 1964. I am absolutely certain that my grandmother’s autograph book was part of why I never considered anything other than going to college. In honor of the influence that little book had on me, in the Fall of 2014, I traveled to Tallahassee and donated the original autograph book and other family photographs to the Meek Eaton Black Archives at Florida A & M University.
Excerpted from: Williams, M. L. (1998). The Autograph Book of Lela Virginia Farnell. Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, vol 17(1).