Constitution of 1868
Congress passed a series of laws known as the Reconstruction Acts in 1867. These laws required the former Confederate states to dissolve existing state governments, register all eligible men (white or African-American) to vote, and then hold conventions to create new state constitutions. To be readmitted to the United States, each state’s constitution had to accept the end of slavery and adopt the 14th amendment, which guaranteed equal rights for all men, regardless of race. Florida’s voters selected delegates to a state constitutional convention in November 1867. The convention met on January 20, 1868, and the new constitution was ratified by the voters the following May.
“Black Minister Gains Office”
By Cinnamon Bair
The Reconstruction era was both a jubilant and a frustrating time for Florida's black residents. By the late 1860s, blacks had finally attained their long-sought freedom from slavery. Now what they sought was equality -- including integrated schools, equal access to public transportation and representation in government.
It was during this time many Florida counties saw the appointment of their first black public officials, including Stepney Dixon as Polk County's voter registrar from 1867 to 1868. Florida sent its first black congressman, Josiah Wells, to Washington in 1872. Black legislators won several seats in Florida's Capitol building. And in Tallahassee, a Presbyterian minister rose to become the governor's right-hand man as Florida's first black secretary of state. In doing so, he became one of the most respected politicians in Florida history.
"Jonathan C. Gibbs (was) one of the best educated and most cultured persons holding a political office," wrote Joe M. Richardson in the Florida Historical Quarterly in April 1964. Born in Philadelphia about 1827, Gibbs was educated at Dartmouth College and Princeton Theological seminary before becoming a minister. His ministry, in fact, brought him to Florida in 1867. Once he arrived, Gibbs immediately recognized Florida needed strong black leaders. And he thought it was his responsibility to step into the void. "People need to know about good government, and they need a good education in all fields," Leedell W. Neyland quoted Gibbs as saying in Twelve Black Floridians. "And they need skilled, educated representatives to make sure that all the people of Florida, Negro and white, have a good government and a good way of life."
Gibbs' first brush with politics came in January 1868 when he was selected to help write Florida's fourth constitution. Amid the debates, Gibbs gained a reputation as a capable orator. "Gibbs was, in one historian's words, `the most accomplished man of either race in the convention,' " wrote Canter Brown Jr. in Florida's Black Public Officials: 1867-1924. Gibbs certainly made an impression on Florida's new governor, Harrison Reed. Later that year, Reed selected Gibbs to be his secretary of state -- the first black Cabinet member in state history
Gibbs quickly earned respect from both his black and white peers. Reed leaned on him heavily, and even former Confederates within the government had to admit Gibbs was competent and fair, Richardson wrote. Gibbs' most notable contributions, however, came a few years later when Reed's successor, Ossian B. Hart, appointed Gibbs state superintendent of public instruction.
Education had long been one of Gibbs’ interests, and he pursued improvements with gusto. He worked to improve the state's education
system as a whole, starting by standardizing the state's teaching texts. He even helped plant the seeds for a university that would become today's Florida A&M. "The public school system in Florida experienced rapid growth under Gibbs' leadership, although he was often discouraged that he was not able to move forward even more rapidly," Richardson wrote.
Unfortunately, Gibbs' tenure in Florida's education system was a short one. The 47-year-old died suddenly Aug. 14, 1874, as he worked in his office. Although his death was attributed to apoplexy or a stroke, some wondered whether he had been poisoned. Gibbs' death was felt across the state.
"It is doing no injustice to the living to add, that in all the elements that go to make up what is termed a good citizen and a capable and honest public servant, he leaves few superiors," the Jacksonville Tri-Weekly Union wrote.
The Plant System
In 1880, one of the first rail lines into Central Florida, the South Florida Railroad, was completed from Sanford to Maitland. By the time the railroad was purchased by the Henry B. Plant Investment Company in 1883, the line had been extended to Orlando. As part of the railroad and shipping giant, Plant System, the railway was extended into Tampa. Passengers, livestock and produce were required to make steamboat connections in Jacksonville to travel south to Sanford. In 1886, the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad reached Sanford. The narrow gauge rails were changed to standard gauge. By 1899, this line also became part of the Plant System. As the result of many rail mergers at the turn of the century, the Plant System consolidated into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1902, and into the Seaboard Coastline by 1903.