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interviewed by David Seth Walker.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (29 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (digital, PDF file)
Florida civil rights oral history project
Leo Wotitzky, attorney and former member of the Florida House of Representatives (1938-1950), discusses his political career and his role in school desegregation, particularly the Virgil Hawkins case to integrate the University of Florida law school. While in the House, Wotitzky was chairman of the House Education Committee.
Interview conducted March 8, 2001.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Civil rights workers
Civil rights workers
x Politics and government.
Walker, David Seth.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Florida Studies Center.
Oral History Program.
University of South Florida.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8
transcript timecoded false doi F55-00019 skipped 15 dategenerated 2015-06-10 19:27:49
segment idx 0time text length 159 David Seth Walker: This is David Seth Walker and I am interviewing Mr. Leo Wotitzky. It is 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, 2001. Mr. Wotitzky, how are you, sir?
132 Leo Wotitzky: I beg your pardon?
248 DW: I said how are you, sir? How are you doing?
320 LW: Oh, fairly well.
495 DW: Very good. Mr. Wotitzky, may I have your permission, sir, to tape record this conversation?
513 LW: Yes, sir.
6148 DW: And Mr. Wotitzky, I will be giving the tape to the Oral History Archives at the University of South Florida. Do you have any objection to that?
716 LW: None at all.
8255 DW: Very good. Mr. Wotitzky, before we get started on my subject matter, would you please tell us about yourself, your background, your education, your profession, any elective offices you may have held, and any honors and recognitions you have achieved?
953 LW: Well, I could brag about myself a long time here.
10DW: Well, do it!
1112 LW: (laughs)
1225 DW: Have at it, go ahead.
13866 LW: Well, let's see. I'm eighty-eight years old, going on eighty-nine. I graduated from high school here in Punta Gorda. [I] attended the University of Florida from 1929 to 1933, and graduated there from the teachers college. I started out to take pre-law, did take one year, ran out of money, and won a hundred dollar semester scholarship in the teachers college. So I went [to] the teachers college and I taught school here in Punta Gorda and in Crescent City, Florida for-oh, a number of years-eight or ten years. I was also worked for the local weekly newspaper and was editor of it for a number of years. Mostly, in between teaching school, I also served from 1938 to 1950 in the Florida legislature as a member of the House [of Representatives] from Charlotte County. And principally, my principal interest was in public education. In that, in that regard, we-
14895 I was chairman of the education committee in the House. We enacted what was called a minimum foundation program for schools, for public education, and brought Florida really out of the Middle Ages into a reasonably well-financed public education system where the state, for the first time, went a long way toward funding the public schools of Florida. It's kind of a complex program, but it revolutionized public education in Florida. And I am quite proud of the role that I had in that. In that, people, I guess, who are familiar with the education programs and teaching in the state will know about it. And with regard to that though, it's so increased the state funding of public education that we had to find new revenue. And as a result, I wound up as a floor leader to pass Florida's first sales tax, 3 percent sales tax. And that was in 1949. So after that I was defeated for re-election.
16758 LW: And in 1950, I went back to the University of Florida to law school. And graduated there in January, I guess, January 30, I believe it was, in 1953. Since that time I've practiced law very actively here in Charlotte County mostly; in all of the courts of-all the state courts and some of the federal. And had a pretty productive life. My wife is a Georgia girl who came down to Florida to teach school-teach home economics. We were married right when I got out of law school, 1953, and we have three children. We have two sons. Both of them are lawyers and they are now running the law firm. I'm pretty much retired. And our daughter is in Atlanta. She's married and she teaches school. She and her husband live there. That's a thumbnail sketch, I think.
17251 DW: So you have had a very wonderful and productive life. Your successes in the legislature that cost you re-election stood to benefit countless thousands of children who would have not have had the educational possibility had you not been successful.
18LW: Beg your pardon?
19132 DW: I said your successes in the House which cost you re-election stood to benefit countless thousands of young students in Florida.
2023 LW: Yes, you know what-
2124 DW: -that wouldn't have-
22LW: It rather upset me to be defeated, but it was the most fortunate thing ever happened to me.
24144 LW: I didn't need to be-I didn't need to be in the legislature forever. When I was a member of the legislature, for example, we met bi-annually-
25DW: Yes, I remember that.
26184 LW: -with sixty days and the compensation was six dollars a day. So we got 360 dollars a session. And that was-I probably would not have had a very successful life if I'd kept that up.
2767 DW: This is true. Well, let me ask you some things here if I could.
289 LW: Sure.
29400 DW: Mr. Vernon Peoples-your friend and a man that I have gotten to know and admire greatly-Mr. Peoples tells me that you can give me some first hand information about the attempt by Virgil Hawkins to integrate the University of Florida law school, his attempt to go there. And I would like for you to tell me about it. And tell me what happened as a result of his attempt to integrate the law school?
30985 LW: Well, my first knowledge of it-the first knowledge I read about it in the newspapers-but my first connection with it at all was, I believe, in the 1949 session of the legislature which was the last session that I served in. I was chairman, as I said, of the education committee. Fuller Warren was governor. So I was invited to come down to the governor's office to the cabinet room for a meeting, a special meeting of the governor's cabinet. If my memory serves me correctly, LeRoy Collins, who was later governor, was chairman of the education committee in the Senate, and I think he was there. And the governor said that they had a problem. The state had a problem because this black fellow, Virgil Hawkins, was applying for admission to the law school at the University of Florida and they didn't know what to do about it. And that was quite a little discussion. He wondered if they should reject him or admit him. What would happen if they admitted him? And that sort of thing.
31402 So the discussion finally evolved around Brown against the Board of Education, you know. I guess I was the one who initiated the observation that it looked to me like the politically safe thing for them to do was to turn him down because he could go to the courts. And the federal courts would order him admitted, and admit him, and forget about it. That was a final decision that they made right then.
32644 And after that I heard, I guess, no more about it than anyone else did until I had been, in 1950-the fall of 1950, after I had lost my re-election bid to the House, I went to the law school of Gainesville. And I think, probably in 1951 my second year there, I think it was-I believe I was president of the Student Bar Association in the law school. And Henry Fenn was dean. F-e-n-n. He asked me to come down to his office one day and he asked me what I thought would be the reaction of the law school student body if Virgil Hawkins were admitted. I told him I didn't have any knowledge but I thought I could find out. So he asked me to do that.
33861 I went around to the law school. Most everybody in the law school spent a good deal of the time up in the law library studying. So I went around and asked everybody-I knew most of them. And I think the consensus-one hundred percent if I am not mistaken-was that if this fellow could come in, and do the work, and pass, and graduate, more power to him. They had no objection. It would cause no disruption of anything. So I went back after-took me two or three days to do that-I went back to the dean and told him. And he said well, he was glad to know it. He thought that he would do one other thing-and I think they've done that consistently since then-and that was to on all examination papers no one would sign his name but would put his Social Security number on examination papers so that the grading process would be completely anonymous. That was adopted.
34268 But then for whatever reasons-I don't recall anymore-Virgil Hawkins never did attend the University of Florida. I think he went to a law school up in Boston or someplace. And that's-Well, you probably have more background on the rest of it or at least as much as I do.
35DW: (sounds of agreement)
36915 LW: What I know is really whatever is in the papers. I think he came back-he was admitted to the bar and practiced law, I believe, in Leesburg-somewhere in central Florida. And [he] got into some difficulty. He was trying to help people. He didn't make any money and I don't know whether he was a good lawyer or not. I don't think that he was-I don't think he had enough varied experience to be a real skilled lawyer. But at least he broke the color band. And the upshot of it, I guess you would have to say, was to make it clear that, at least in the law school at the University of Florida, there was no prejudice of any kind that would inhibit a person, a black person, from going there if he could do the work of succeeding. That would be my conclusion about it. That's pretty much, judge, what I can recall. I guess if someone would ask really specific questions I might remember more but that is generally it.
37275 DW: Well, that is a wonderful, wonderful story. Let me ask you this: did the creation of the Florida A&M [Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University] law school have anything whatsoever to do with Virgil Hawkins's attempt to go the University of Florida law school?
38834 LW: I think that it did. That's something else I can-that I had some contact with. When I was in law school at the University of Florida, I was requested by some of the-I guess maybe the dean or somebody, somebody from the university anyway-to go over to Tallahassee during the legislative session and try to help boost their budget request. And while I was over there I went into the Senate chamber and sat down outside the bar there in a chair-as a former member, I could do that. And while I was sitting there, I noticed that they were debating a bill to create the Florida A&M law school. At that time Bill Shands, Senator Shands from Gainesville, saw me-I knew him well. He came over and he said to me, "We are going to pass this bill to create the Florida A&M law school, and this is going to solve our problem forever."
40633 LW: That is the integration problem. And I said, "Well, fine but I don't think it will solve anything. I think that the day of this segregated school thing is over but you all can, of course, do what you please." So they went on and did it. The law school was created. It was never very successful. [It] never had many students. And finally, when-I don't remember in what year it was-but when the law school at Florida State University was created, what they did was just abandon that one, closed it down. In effect, closed it and there upon created the Florida State University law school. That's about as much as I know about that.
4122 DW: I appreciate that.
42LW: I didn't know that that school-that school did not-was never, never had many students, or graduates, nor was it very successful.
43235 DW: I had heard that. Let me ask you something else. Going forward three or four years to 1954, as you know, on May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas-
448 LW: Yes.
45313 DW: -and I wonder if you could think back and relate to me your recollection of the reaction to that decision of the people in and around your home town of Punta Gorda and in Florida as much as you can recall. How did the people react to it? What did they say? What were their thoughts? As much as you can recall.
46630 LW: Well, of course, there was a lot of reaction-adverse reaction in some places-but almost none, for example, here. In-I can't remember which year it was-but one of the, if not the first action that was taken pursuant to Brown against Board of Education in Charlotte County was that the local school system was integrated. And it was integrated from top to bottom all at once. The superintendent, the county school superintendent, was a fellow by the name of Hugh Adams, who was a graduate of the local high school and of Florida State-matter of fact, I taught him in school before then. And there was no adverse reaction at all.
47598 I suppose there were some rough spots in the-actually in the school when they got-when the black children were there. But the situation was awfully bad before that. Black children, until he integrated the schools, were transported from Punta Gorda to an all-black high school in Fort Myers, twenty-five miles away, every day. And on that bus, they'd drive right by Charlotte County High School. And so, it was a grossly unfair thing. And I guess people just realized it. When I was here all of that period of time, I recall no adverse reaction; rather, people seemed to be pleased that it was done.
48560 I recall one occasion when-I forget what the occasion was but I was asked to appear at the high school here one time to speak about something. It may have been law week or something like that. Well, it happened to be, I think, one day after Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated-or a day or two after. And I expressed sadness and sorrow and a sense of terrible loss to America that, that had occurred. And there were a number of black students in the school at that time. And I got no-didn't get much reaction of any kind, but certainly nothing adverse.
49506 I do recall doing a Rotary Club program during that time. And I spoke about the Brown decision and just read to the Rotarians provisions of the Constitution; and also, the Declaration of Independence, "Oh, well, everybody's created equal." Again, no adverse reaction at all. So I think that the people in this community showed, I think, an admirable attitude with regard to the integration thing. I can't-I don't think of anything anymore detailed though. Unless you-perhaps you can think of some question.
50217 DW: Well, you maintained some contact with the folks in Tallahassee; what was going on in Tallahassee after Brown? Was there any legislative reaction or any negative commentary from some of the good ol' boys up there?
51LW: You mean after Brown?
5358 LW: Well, of course, I was not in the legislature anymore.
5472 DW: No, but you still had friends up there. What was happening up there?
55174 LW: I don't think that-I do not recall anything of any great significance. The main thing was to get rid of those inadequate schools that they were sending black children to.
57271 LW: And getting them into the other schools. I know that they had-see, I know, I am confident [that] they had difficulties in some areas of Florida that were-where it was more-much more conservative, I guess. Or was no reason why we shouldn't have been conservative here.
5875 DW: Well, Pinellas County became integrated by federal court order in 1970.
5918 LW: Is that right?
60DW: And in 1954, I was in junior high school and I went to school there rest of my days here in Florida. I went to college in North Carolina. And I came back here and went to law school at Stetson [University]. And I never once ever had a black classmate.
61LW: Is that right?
62391 DW: And Pinellas County was integrated by federal court order in 1970. And I really don't think, minus that federal court order, it would be integrated today. A couple of times in my career on the bench when I've entered an order that favored a black person or released a black defendant, I've gotten phone calls at my home wherein my children were told that their father was a nigger-lover.
63LW: Yes. That sort of thing did happen. I never did have any reaction. I was pretty outspoken and I wasn't seeking any more offices. So all I had to do was just say my piece.
65223 LW: Well, I tell you what Mr. Wotitzky, the information that you have given me is invaluable. And it will find itself into my paper and I appreciate your time more than I can say. And thank you very much for helping me out.
66123 LW: Well, I've enjoyed talking to you and if what I said is of some use to you, well, I'm happy to have been able to do it.
67187 DW: Well, I am sure that it will be, because I am talking to somebody who was there themselves. And did it, and saw it, and that's the best kind of source available. And I mean sure that-
6842 LW: But there aren't many of us left over.
69214 DW: (laughs) This is true. And I do, as I say, appreciate your time and tell your lovely wife, who I've spoken to a couple of times, that I appreciate her giving you up for a few minutes and letting you talk to me.
7070 LW: Well, it's been a pleasure. I look forward to seeing you sometime.
71164 DW: Well, if you are ever in St. Petersburg, I am in the judicial building in downtown St. Petersburg, up on the fourth floor, and I would love to have you come by.
7252 LW: I surely will. You haven't-you have not retired?
73263 DW: No, I retire January 6, 2003. I am not going to seek re-election. That's the end of this term. And I've already got my thirty years in, but I am going to stick around to the end of the term. I think it is tacky to run for a term of office and not fill it out.
7410 LW: I see.
7539 DW: So that's what's happening with me.
7666 LW: Well, if I have occasion to be up there I surely will come by.
7792 DW: Well, I would be highly honored if you would. And I would love to meet you face to face.
7830 LW: Well, thank you very much.
7955 DW: Okay. Take care, Mr. Wotitzky, and thank you again.
8021 LW: Thank you, Judge.
82end of interview
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