Women who stepped ‘out of role’ served city and its citizens well

Long lasting benefits from five who didn’t accept ‘no’

These days, it’s not unusual to find women in every profession and civic endeavor. Not so in the last century. However, Jacksonville’s history boasts strong and successful women who significantly contributed to the fabric of our society. In observance of Women’s History Month, this feature spotlights five accomplished women who have made huge impacts in humanitarianism, philanthropy, politics, architecture, beautification and culture. Because of their determination, persistence and talents, they serve as timeless role models for today’s women.

By Lorrie DeFrank
Resident Community News

Ninah Cummer (Woodward Studio, Ninah M. H. Cummer (1875 – 1958) in her garden, c. 1929, gelatin print, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens Archives)

Ninah Cummer (Woodward Studio, Ninah M. H. Cummer (1875 – 1958) in her garden, c. 1929, gelatin print, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens Archives)

Exquisite Riverside museum, gardens a gift from one resident to all

With her love and knowledge of horticulture and art, Ninah Cummer was a major force in creating and preserving Jacksonville’s cultural identity. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens on Riverside Avenue is on the land where she lived with her husband, Arthur Gerrish Cummer, in a large English Tudor Revival house. The lumber baron family’s compound included two other homes and expansive gardens that Cummer cultivated through the decades and that continue to amaze visitors today.

An avid gardener who collected European treasures that included Old Master portraits, Cummer willed that her home and gardens be turned into a museum.

Born in 1875 in Indiana, she met her future husband at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The couple married in 1897 and settled in Jacksonville. Cummer was involved in the city’s reconstruction efforts following its devastating 1901 fire and was active in the Woman’s Club, Children’s Home Society and Red Cross. In 1922 she organized the Garden Club of Jacksonville.

Holly Keris, the museum’s chief curator, said that although the Cummer family’s contribution to Jacksonville often focuses on the founding of the museum, their true legacy touches many aspects of the community.

“Perhaps less well known is Mrs. Cummer’s incredible commitment to the beautification of Jacksonville. Her personal gardens are a tangible example of her desire to see beautiful spaces peppered throughout the city,” Keris said. “Through the trial and error efforts on her own property, Mrs. Cummer built a deep knowledge of Florida horticulture, which she shared locally and across the state. In this community, she was an active advocate for the preservation of public green spaces and the creation of public parks, most notably Riverside’s Memorial Park, founded and developed by a citizen’s committee as a World War I memorial. Mrs. Cummer worked with the Olmsted Bros. firm on the particulars of the park, including the plant choices. In her will, she noted her desire to create ‘a center of beauty and culture’ for the benefit of ‘all of the people.’ Although she specifically was referring to the museum itself, Memorial Park certainly is another outstanding example of her continuing imprint on our city.”

A current exhibit at the Cummer Museum is devoted to the civic advocacy of Ninah Cummer, who died in 1958. “Conservation, Beautification and a City Plan: Ninah Cummer and the Beautification of Jacksonville” will run through Nov. 27.

“As a member of the City Planning Advisory Board and chairman of the Special Garden Club Committee, Mrs. Cummer was instrumental in conserving, preserving and developing Jacksonville’s green spaces,” Keris said. “Using materials from the Cummer Museum, Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville Historical Society, University of North Florida and others, the exhibit explores her impact on the beautification of Jacksonville.”

‘Steel Magnolia’ remembered through park


Tillie Fowler (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville Historical Society Collection)

Residents of Jacksonville have a perpetual and lovely reminder of an influential woman who represented Jacksonville citizens passionately at local and national levels. Just down the road at 7000 Roosevelt Blvd., Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park was named for the woman who pushed to develop the 507-acre tract that had been leased from the U.S. Navy, for which she was a strong advocate.

After serving on Jacksonville City Council from 1985 to 1992, Fowler was the first Florida Republican woman elected in her own right to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served four terms. The only Republican woman on the House Armed Services Committee, she was nicknamed “Steel Magnolia” for her solid support of the military—largely because of its huge presence in Jacksonville—and opposition to cuts in defense spending.

Congressman Ander Crenshaw, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, said, “I was honored to call Tillie Fowler one of my closest friends. Remembered for putting the needs of Northeast Florida first, she upheld our region’s strong Navy heritage, represented the needs of individuals and families with an incomparable work ethic, and played a key role in making our nation a better place. We can all learn from the exceptional example of public service she set and pay her tribute by carrying that out today and in the years to come.”

Born in Milledgeville, Ga., Fowler attended law school at the urging of her father, longtime Democratic Georgia State Sen. Culver Kidd who recognized his daughter’s persistence and outspokenness. After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in the mid-1960s she worked as a legislative assistant to Rep. Robert G. Stephens Jr., a Florida Democrat, because no Atlanta firm would hire a woman litigator.

After moving to Jacksonville in 1971 with her husband of three years, attorney L. Buck Fowler, she became active in the community, including serving as president of Junior League where she garnered considerable political support. In a show of her well-known determination and to her father’s dismay, she switched party affiliations to Republican.

Before her death from a brain hemorrhage at age 62 in 2005, she was a Washington-based partner in the law firm of Holland & Knight and continued to lobby on behalf of Jacksonville on military issues.

A year before she died Fowler told Florida Times-Union writer Judy Wells that “no” to her always meant you had to get more creative; there’s always a way to do something.

Former school teacher turned wealth manager extraordinaire

Jessie Ball duPont (Photo courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Fund)

Jessie Ball duPont (Photo courtesy of Jessie Ball duPont Fund)

Philanthropist extraordinaire Jessie Ball duPont grew up in a family still struggling financially from the devastation of the Civil War in northern Virginia, where at age 14 she met multi-millionaire Alfred I. duPont who was there on a hunting trip. After marrying him in 1921 at age 37, the couple lived on his estate in Delaware where she began a financial venture that has funded hundreds of worthy causes in Northeast Florida for decades.

Based in Jacksonville, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund is a national foundation that makes grants to organizations whose eligibility is determined exclusively by her personal philanthropic decisions. Its grant making totals $12 million to $18 million a year, mostly for community service projects.

Previously a school teacher in Virginia, she moved in 1908 with her parents to San Diego, where she became an elementary school principal and saved her money to award college scholarships to needy students. In 1920 she reconnected with duPont, an industrialist and philanthropist whose wealth she eventually wisely managed, with the help of her brother Edward Ball, to assist generations of people.

After living in Delaware for six years, the duPonts moved to Jacksonville where they built a 58-acre estate they named Epping Forest on the St. Johns River. When Alfred died in 1935 his wife assumed control of his business enterprises and became principal trustee of his estate. One of the foundations she created in his memory was to build a children’s hospital, now the Nemours Foundation. In her later years she moved back to the Nemours Estate in Delaware, where she died in 1970 at age 86.

“Jessie Ball duPont was a woman of great conviction and independent spirit at a time when women were not encouraged to be strong leaders. But it is her thoughtfulness in the disposition of her estate that I reflect upon most often,” said Sherry P. Magill, president, Jessie Ball duPont Fund. “She cared about particular places, and she cared deeply about the people who lived in those places—rich and poor, educated and uneducated, black and white. She structured her legacy to be lasting, but not rigid, and, as a result, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund can be responsive to the needs of a 21st Century world.”

Magill said Jacksonville has clearly benefitted from that legacy. Since its inception, the Fund has invested more than $76 million in Jacksonville, not including $26 million for the repurposing of the former Haydon Burns Library into the Jessie Ball duPont Center.

The Fund owns the center, a gathering place for philanthropy and nonprofits that opened last year in the former main library building at 40 E. Adams St. It houses a dozen nonprofits, including the Fund, United Way of Northeast Florida, Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida and the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center.

City’s first female architect a ‘trailblazer’

Henrietta Dozier (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville Historical Society Collection)

Henrietta Dozier (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville Historical Society Collection)

Way back in the early 1900s, when for the most part women were nurses or teachers if they worked outside the home at all, Henrietta Dozier was designing buildings in Jacksonville and directing contractors on how to construct them. A trailblazer for sure, she was the city’s first female architect.

In a 1939 interview for the Federal Writers Project, a government project to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression, she said, “ I do not know whether my life history will be of any interest but, believe me, I have always lived! I love life and I want to live just as long as I can be of any use.”

Feisty and accomplished, especially for her time, Dozier, who was born in Fernandina Beach in 1872 and died in 1947, indeed is remembered for her exceptional talent and her creative structures that remain today.

Her designs include St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at 801 N. Pearl St.; the Old Federal Reserve Bank Building at 424 N. Hogan St.; Lampru Court Apartments on Boulevard Street; and residences at 1819 Goodwin St. and 1814 Powell Place. She also designed the impressive former residence that now houses the Deas Law Firm at 2215 River Blvd. in St. Johns Quarter.

“I am a huge fan of her work,” said Richard Skinner, president of Richard Skinner and Associates, an architectural firm at 2245 St. Johns Ave. “There was always a unique feature in her architecture that was subtle. Never ostentatious, always elegant.”

In addition to the simple elegance of the house on Goodwin Street, Skinner said his favorite Dozier design is “a sweet little house on Hedrick between Van Wert and Shadowlawn that is very unassuming … a beautifully designed house with a unique entrance on an inside corner. It stands out.”

Skinner said it’s important to note that architecture was largely a man’s profession back then, yet Dozier was designing beautiful buildings and getting them built. “Having clients who believed in her was a testament to her skills, not to mention dealing with the contractors,” he said. “She broke new ground. Graduating from MIT was also a testament to her will and commitment.”

Of the three women in her class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was the only one to graduate—with an advanced degree in architecture in 1899. After working in Atlanta for 13 years, she moved her practice to Jacksonville in 1914. During World War I she worked for the city’s Engineering Department.

“I have been a ‘lone wolf’ right along,” Dozier shared in that 1939 interview. “I have never had any woman associate in my work, and so far as I know have never had any competition in this line in Jacksonville. I have always had to compete with men, yes. In submitting designs, plans, bids, I have never asked any consideration at any time because I happened to be a woman; I put all my cards on the table in fair and honest competition, and ask only consideration on the same basis.”

Clara White founder ‘did good’ just about everywhere

Eartha White (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville Historical Society Collection)

Eartha White (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville Historical Society Collection)

An adopted daughter of former slaves, Eartha Mary Magdalene White left a humanitarian and philanthropic legacy that continues to touch thousands of Jacksonvillians. A shrewd businesswoman who gave her fortune to the less fortunate and said she was too busy helping others to marry, White founded the Clara White Mission in 1904 to carry on the charitable work of her mother, its namesake. Today, the mission on West Ashley Street serves 400 meals daily, houses 32 homeless veterans monthly and provides a multitude of other services for the needy.

“A lot of her programs still resonate with society today,” said Ju’Coby Pittman, the mission’s president and CEO. “From an economic standpoint, we have been able to not only feed people but also train and employ them. People who have not had jobs in some time are now taxpaying individuals. Miss White developed sustainable programs that we are able to continue. We’re proud to be able to pick up where she left off. It wasn’t about color for her. It was about customizing programs that will transition people to the next part of their life journeys.”

“The Great Fire of 1901,” co-authored by Wayne W. Wood and Bill Foley, recounts how White saved the records of the Afro-American Insurance Company from the blaze that destroyed much of the city. She was its first woman employee, moonlighting as a secretary to the business manager. The book calls White’s multifaceted career “so rich and full that no other person in this town has ever equaled it.”

Following graduation from Stanton School in 1893, White toured the country and abroad as a soprano with an African-American opera company. After returning to Jacksonville in 1896 and receiving a degree from Florida Baptist Academy, she pursued entrepreneurial and humanitarian efforts that earned her numerous awards and honors, including appointment to President Richard Nixon’s National Center for Voluntary Action and a visit to the mission from Eleanor Roosevelt.

A teacher for 16 years, she operated a dry goods stores, janitorial service, taxi company and steam laundry. In addition to the mission, her charitable impact includes establishing a hospital, boys’ club, home for unwed mothers, orphanage, childcare center and rehab program for released prisoners.

In a 1982 Florida Times-Union story then-Mayor Hans Tanzler called her “irrepressible and undeniable.” White lived on the second floor of her mission from 1932 until her death at age 97 in 1974, and was instrumental in starting a nursing home at age 89.

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