May Mann Jennings

May Jennings in 1901, when she was Florida's first lady
May Jennings with her husband and son at Niagara Falls
The Jennings home in Jacksonville

May Austin Elizabeth Mann Jennings (April 25, 1872 – April 25, 1963) was one of Florida's most powerful and influential women. She was a leader of organizations, both civic and philanthropic, and founder of the Florida League of Women Voters. Her father was a state senator and later, when he ran for and was elected state representative she worked as his assistant. She was the First Lady of Florida as wife of Florida Governor William Sherman Jennings and is credited with having advanced his political career significantly through relationships gained while working for her father and through her many activities.

Early yearsEdit

May Mann was born in the Centerville section of Bayonne, New Jersey. Her parents moved to Crystal River, Florida in 1874.[1] While living there her father, Austin Mann, was elected to the Florida Senate. Her mother died in 1882 when she was nine and her father sent May and her younger sister away to St. Joseph Academy in St. Augustine, Florida. The children spent vacations with their father in Tallahassee when the Legislature was in session. May was very bright and learned everything she could about people, politics, and the Capitol. She was valedictorian of her class, being graduated in 1889. Austin Mann then ran for the state House of Representatives and May assisted in the campaign, hosted teas, and spoke with people at rallies.[2]

MarriageEdit

May Mann met Hernando County Judge William Sherman Jennings at her father's home near Brooksville, and a courtship began.[3] May's father won election to the office of state senator and when the legislative session began in January, 1891, May went to Tallahassee to serve as aide to her father. She was responsible for his appointments, correspondence, and hosting social events.[2] William S. Jennings went to Tallahassee and the courtship continued. Judge Jennings married May Mann on May 12, 1891 and they were escorted down the aisle by the full legislative membership.[2]

The newlyweds lived in Brooksville in what now is designated historically as the William Sherman Jennings House. In 1893, her husband was elected to the Florida legislature and he became Speaker of the House in 1895. The couple had one child, a son, Sherman Bryan Jennings. William then ran for and was elected governor of Florida in 1900. Many credit his meteoric rise in the state Democratic Party to May's extensive knowledge of state politics and politicians and to her vast network of relationships throughout the state among the Florida Federation of Woman's Club members.[2]

In 1901, they moved to Tallahassee and for four years lived in the governor’s mansion. Following her husband’s term as governor, the couple moved to Jacksonville, then Florida’s largest city, where he established a successful law practice. They divided their time between a home in Jacksonville and a farm near Middleburg, in Clay County, where they also had timber holdings.[4] Her Husband died in 1920.

Civic workEdit

May Jennings was an organizer of the Duval County Federation of Women's Clubs and was president of the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs.[3] She used that influential network of motivated women to fight for issues including environmental conservation, child welfare, Women's suffrage, the State Library of Florida in Tallahassee, reservations for the Seminoles, the establishment of compulsory education, stock fence laws, and preservation of state parks. Club women across the state worked in campaign drives, lobbied legislators, and appealed to other organizations for assistance.[5]

On March 31, 1921, May Jennings co-founded the Florida State League of Women Voters.[6] She campaigned and spoke for prohibition, better treatment of children, for the rights of prisoners, education reforms and funding, improvements in public welfare, historic preservation, conservation, and highway beautification.

She died on April 25, 1963.

LegacyEdit

May Jennings was known as the "Mother of Florida Forestry" for her part in promoting and securing the legislative act that created the Florida State Board of Forestry,[3] known today, as the Division of Forestry. According to Ruthanne Vogel of the University of Miami, Jennings was "instrumental in the development of Royal Palm State Park near Homestead", which later was donated to the National Park Service and incorporated into Everglades National Park.[3]

HonorsEdit

  • In 1929, Stetson University awarded May Jennings an honorary Doctor of Laws for her tireless civic and political work for a dozen worthy causes.[1]
  • She was named by the Lakeland Ledger as one of the most important Floridians of the twentieth century.
  • May Mann Jennings was designated a Great Floridian by the Florida Department of State in the Great Floridians 2000 Program. A plaque attesting to the honor is located at the Jennings House in Brooksville.[7] In 2008, she was also honored as a Great Floridian in the revived program.[5]
  • May Mann Jennings Park, a 33-acre (130,000 m2) city of Jacksonville-owned park located in the northern part of the city, is named in her honor. It opened in 1940.[8]
  • May Mann Jennings Hall at the University of Florida was named in her honor in 1962.[9]

ReferencesEdit

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