The former Florida Conference College in the city of Leesburg — a direct historical precursor to today’s Florida Southern College — saw its first class graduate in 1890. Members of that class, pictured from left in this archival portrait, were Henrietta Abney, Linnie Sessions, Hannah Hopson, Beulah Milam, Addie Abney, Sarah “Sallie” Fussell, and Stella Norton.
Apr 27, 2020
To Celebrate International Women’s day, we are taking a look back in time at the first female graduates who trail blazed the way in the 1800s.
Seven young women from five states comprised the first graduating class of Florida Conference College in Leesburg, Fla., an academic institution that eventually became known as Florida Southern College. Born in the 1860s and 1870s to big families that held education in high regard, these seven members of the Class of 1890 sought Bachelor of Arts degrees in fields such as teaching and stenography.
As early as the mid-1800s, members of the Florida Methodist Conference had taken steps to establish an educational presence in the state, founding the East Florida Seminary in the small town of Micanopy. Although this seminary closed its doors around 1860 with the approach of the Civil War, by 1883 the Conference had started a new school in the village of Orlando. Called the South Florida Institute, it was located in a four-room building at the corner of Orange Avenue and Jackson Street in the city’s present-day downtown.
The founding of this school, later renamed the Wesleyan Seminary and the Wesleyan Institute, marked the start of an unbroken history leading to today’s Florida Southern College.
Following a relocation offer from the city of Leesburg, which included a new but unfinished building, the Wesleyan Institute’s trustees voted to move the school from Orlando in 1886, changing its name to The High School and College of the Florida Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Common usage shortened the name to Florida Conference College.
With the move to Leesburg, Joshua Hollingsworth was named as the school’s first official president. He was succeeded in the position two years later by W.W. Seals, who served for a single year. Theophilus W. Moore, who took over as the College’s third president in 1889, oversaw the graduation of the Class of 1890, the first in the history of the institution.
Through genealogical research, we have learned more about the seven students pictured here, who are considered to have been the first graduates of Florida Southern College:
Born in 1875 in Alabama, Henrietta was the daughter of parents Azariah Abney and Mary Moody. She was the fifth of eight children, with two brothers and five sisters. Her sister Addie, who was four years older, was also a member of the Class of 1890. Henrietta was selected as the College’s first Honor Walk recipient in 1887, three years prior to her graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In records from 1900, she was listed as single and living with her parents. In about 1907, she married Arthur B. Lees, a former New Yorker who was identified in 1924 as the mayor of Eustis, Fla., and the owner of a furniture and hardware store. Henrietta died in 1934 and is buried with her family in Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg, Fla.
Although her name appears variously in archival sources as Lennie, Linnie, Minnie, and Zinnie, an Ancestry.com family tree gives her full name as Leonara Jane Sessions. An 1880 census of Williamsburg County in South Carolina shows she was born in about 1871 to Percival Wayne Sessions, Sr., a farmer and dentist, and Mary Virginia Wilson. She had five younger siblings, including four sisters and one brother. The Sessions family moved to Florida sometime between 1882 and 1888. Linnie graduated from College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. The 1900 U.S. Census of Plant City, Fla., shows her working as a school teacher and living with her parents. Records also show that she worked as a fourth grade teacher in the Tampa area and possibly in St. Petersburg. She died in 1911 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in St. Petersburg.
Born in Georgia in 1873 to Virgil Lafayette Hopson and Sarah Matilda Morton, Hannah was one of seven children. She graduated from College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Records show her as a member of the faculty of Florida Conference College in Leesburg for the fall term of 1896-1897, teaching stenography and typewriting. It appears that Hannah was working as a stenographer in 1900 and living with her brother in Monticello, Fla. In 1911, she was working in the same occupation for the Kennedy-Brown-Hall Company in Jacksonville, and for the next 10 years in Duval County. An employment-related source described Hannah as "a competent amanuensis" (one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts). In 1930, she was listed as a bookkeeper in San Francisco. When she died there in 1934, her name was reported as “Miss Hannah W. Hopson,” so it appears she never married.
Born in 1872 in Kentucky, Beulah was the daughter of Thomas Milam, a physician, and Nancy Caroline McAllister. She was the youngest of her father's 10 children, including six half-siblings. She married George Chester Warner in 1892 in Lake County, Fla., and worked as a middle- and high-school teacher in Duval County. She was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization for both men and women, and was a charter member of the Jacksonville Historical Society and the American Association of University Women. She was also a member of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society and the sole recipient of that organization’s Sarah Ferguson Achievement Award in 1937. Records indicate that she served for a time as the head of the Horace Mann School in New York City. She died in 1959 at age 87, and is buried in Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg. Her gravestone reads “Worthy Grand Matron Fla. 1921-22. Teacher and Molder of Youth.”
Addie was born in Alabama in 1871, the daughter of parents Azariah Abney and Mary Moody, and the older sister of Henrietta (Abney) Lees, also an 1890 graduate. Addie was selected as the College’s third Honor Walk recipient in 1889 and graduated with Second Honors in 1890, having earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. The 1900 census listed Addie as single and a teacher. In October 1900, she married Harry B. Bardwell, who was teaching in Florida when they met and wed. He later became a Methodist missionary in Cuba, where he and Addie and their two daughters, Kathleen and Mary Frances, resided for many years. She died in 1949 and is buried in Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg.
Sallie was born in 1867 in Webster, Fla., the second of seven children born to Obed Fussell and Mary Louisa Lee. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and was named as the College’s fourth Honor Walk recipient in her graduation year. In 1892, she married John Alexander Hendry, a Methodist minister with churches in Apalachicola, Starke, Lakeland, Bradenton, Madison, Quincy, Ocala, Hampton, Plant City, and Fort Pierce. They had at least four children together, and she outlived her husband by about 26 years. Sarah died in 1951 in Leesburg, and is buried there in Lone Oak Cemetery, as are her father and all six of her siblings. Her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Hendry, married Carlton W. Palmore, the namesake of an elementary school in Lakeland.
Born in 1868 in Gadsden, Ala., Stella was the daughter of Wilbur Fisk Norton, Sr., and Sallie L. Cassady. She was the eldest of six children. Her father served as a private and chaplain in the Confederate Army, and later was a Methodist pastor. Throughout her life, Stella lived in many different cities in Alabama, Florida, and North Carolina. She was the College’s second Honor Walk recipient in 1888 and graduated with First Honors, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1890, she married a Methodist pastor, the Rev. Edward Kirby Whidden. The couple had four children, one of whom died at a young age. Stella died in 1945 at age 76 in Waynesville, N.C., and is buried in Allison Cemetery in Jonathan, N.C.
From Leesburg to Lakeland: In 1901, the school's trustees purchased a pair of hotels in the town of Sutherland — five miles south of Tarpon Springs and now known as Palm Harbor — to be used as men's and women's dormitories following the College's next move. The school underwent several more name changes until its current designation as Florida Southern College took hold, after its 1922 relocation to Lakeland.
— Research by Andy Smith, Kimberly Smith, and Greg Williams
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