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Black History Spotlight: Pensacola Lawyer Founded a University (FAMU)

Thomas DeSaille Tucker

Thomas DeSaille Tucker (7/21/1844 – 1903) was an African-born educator, lawyer, and missionary that made notable differences in the educational backgrounds of former slaves and the African American communities in Pensacola, the State of Florida, and throughout the regions of the New South. He was a pioneer of human equality and his tireless efforts and forward-thinking shaped liberal arts education for the predominately African-American community today. He was the first president of Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (“FAMU”), originally named, the State Normal College for Colored Students; a sign of its times, but more so, of change and influence.

Tucker was born to an esteemed African family in Sierra Leone. His family, itself, had roots in the slave trade. His first experiences in education began with American missionaries that started a school, the Mende Mission, to educate and repatriate former captives of the Armistad. This emersion into education and compassion for slaves shaped Tucker’s views and the landscape of generations to come.

At 12 years old, Tucker emigrated to America, where he ultimately succeeded in preparatory and collegiate schools at Oberlin College. Here, too, Tucker raised the bar on the equality of life and education, taking leave from college in 1862, to teach emancipated slaves at Fortress Monroe, a place where freedom seekers also found themselves contraband of the American Civil War. Tucker’s inspiration for fighting on for education came from the student's “love of strong freedom.”

Ultimately, while supporting his education through educating freemen, Tucker succeeded in obtaining his law degree from Straight University in 1883, now Dillard University, another predominately African-American university. In 1884 he settled on Pensacola, Florida to begin a successful four-year law practice with JD Thompson before his calling to continue the education of freemen in the South. Instead of returning to his homeland, Tucker resolved himself to be “governed by a sense of duty, and not by selfish inclinations” and to “teach in any capacity – for elevation of the freemen.”

In 1887, Tucker co-founded the State Normal College for Colored Students and was appointed its first president. At the time, the student body consisted of 15 students and two teachers. In his appointments, local newspapers wrote of Tucker, “we have never met a more genial, broadminded and sterling gentleman … he is a strong man, morally, and intellectually, and a new Normal has a security of success under his charge.” And indeed, it did, growing into a legacy with many firsts, including land grants, libraries, a range of collegiate education, and the first African-American institution to be recognized as a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Tucker's presidency came to an end because of racism and conflicts with William N. Sheats, who became Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1893. Sheats was a white supremacist and opponent of miscegenation and black political participation who was the namesake of the notorious 1895 Sheats Law enforcing strict racial segregation in schools. Sheats wanted vocational training versus liberal arts. Nevertheless, today, Tucker’s efforts at a liberal arts school have prevailed.

Upon its inception, the school and student body would quickly outgrow the campus at an exponential rate. In the beginning, some students had to live off-campus in host private homes for several years, not to mention that the college’s enrollment numbers had survived the 1888 yellow fever epidemic. 130 years later we have cured the epidemics, but continue to battle race and inequality, but with numbers, America will prevail. “In honor of the hardworking sacrifices done by past presidents who are no longer with us, we’d like to pour libation,” said Tucker, a fourth-generation grand-nephew. “Use this time to discover yourselves, realize that the greatest vehicle to bring about political, social, and economic change is through an education.”

Today, Florida A&M University continues to aspire in the footsteps of its pioneers with nearly 11,000 students and representing 70 different countries. As of today, the campus is encompassed with more than 150 buildings and 400 acres implanted on the highest hill of Tallahassee with Dr. Elmira Mangum serving as the university’s first female president.

In a recent commemoration, it was said of FAMU, “Welcome to the college of love and charity, welcome to the opportunity; welcome to the home of trailblazers.”