The Grand Dame of Macon County

Florida Douglass Broward Segrest

In my decade long research for my historical fiction Girls on The Porch, I traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to meet civil rights lawyer Fred D. Gray and to Birmingham, Alabama to the archives department of the Samford Library. The Samford Library retrieved fifty boxes of historical documents from the estate of my late Aunt, Florida Broward Segrest, before the home was burned down in a suspicious fire after the deaths of the white Tuskegee couple. The family had stood with African Americans as lawyer Fred D. Gray used his immense legal talent to gain civil rights for his people. My great aunt, Florida Segrest, is featured on one of the last panels of the Tuskegee History Center a place of honor in a museum established by one of leading architects of the modern civil rights movement Fred David Gray.

From left to right: Sharon Hardee Jimenez, Deborah Gray (Director of the Tuskegee History Center), and Stephen Graham Segrest

Aunt Florida earned her place in the museum as she earned a place in the hearts and minds of many in Alabama for her ferocious sense of fairness and her brilliant lectures on genealogy. Florida and Fred Gray share a unique story in the history of Macon County Alabama and the nation. Florida was elected as chairwoman of the Macon County Commission as Fred Gray was beginning a law career aimed at ending segregation in his home state. Aunt Florida was not a native of Alabama. She came to the state to attend college where she met her future husband, Henry Neill Segrest. Florida was named for the state of Florida.

Legend has it that a reporter in Florida in 1904 suggested Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and his wife Annie Douglass Broward name their new daughter Florida to win more votes in the gubernatorial race.  Surely the reporter was right on the mark as Broward won election despite having lost the endorsement of most of the major newspapers in Florida the year he ran for chief executive. Aunt Florida’s life would honor the name of the family and the name of her native state.

Interviewing Fred D. Gray in his office at the Gray Law Center in Tuskegee has been one of the most important interviews in my research for #girlsontheporch. “I served as the lawyer for the Macon County Commission when Florida Segrest was the chair of the commission,” Fred Gray explained. I visited his law firm in 2018 accompanied by my family members and my late Aunt Florida’s only surviving son, Stephen Segrest, along with a close friend of the family and long time South Alabamian, Jimmy McGhar. I hoped to come away with a better understanding of why my family members actively supported voting rights for African Americans by standing against the white segregationists.

I knew my late aunt was influenced by her parents to confront injustice. She wanted to go to Africa to teach after earning a college degree. She ended up teaching children in the foothills of Appalachia, where extreme poverty afflicted the youth of Alabama’s isolated white mountain people.  Marrying into an established Alabama family, the Segrest family, would be a challenge when the couple began supporting Black voting rights.

Whites, including my Great Aunt Florida and Great Uncle Henry Neill Segrest, endured ridicule, intimidation, and social isolation to work for a better, integrated Tuskegee and Macon County

Aunt Florida and her husband, lawyer Henry Neill Segrest, raised five sons – Henry Neill Jr., Douglas Broward, Donald Hutchison, Allan Duncan, and Stephen Graham – in a city that became the epicenter for an historic voting rights case Gomillion versus Lightfoot. Fred Gray told us that Florida’s husband, Henry Neill Segrest, was the only white lawyer in Tuskegee to stand with the civil rights lawyers.   White Alabama leaders from some of the oldest families in the state were standing against their neighbors, including Clifford and Virginia Durr and Henry Neill and Florida Segrest, in supporting greater voter participation of their neighbors in Tuskegee. The historic US Supreme Court Case was won by Fred D. Gray in an unanimous decision. Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter overturned the practice of gerrymandering, thereby abolishing the political lines that had been drawn to exclude Blacks from voting in the city of Tuskegee.

The decision came after a tumultuous time in Aunt Florida’s and Uncle Henry Neill Segrest’s time, as their African American neighbors were boycotting the white merchants in downtown Tuskegee because voting lines drawn by state lawmakers kept them from voting in city elections. The gerrymandering case came after Fred Gray had successfully represented Rosa Parks in the Bus Protest and had brought litigation to strike down segregation laws in Alabama.  In February 1961 U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. granted the motion brought by Fred Gray, enjoining the state from drawing the political district in Tuskegee to exclude the famed Tuskegee University and other Black voters.

Tuskegee University (2018). From Left to Right: Bob Jimenez, Jimmy McGhar, Anna Jimenez Lyle, Steve Segrest during visits to Tuskegee University, the office of Fred David Gray, and the Tuskegee History Center

My visits to Alabama on behalf of the descendants of Florida Governor, Napoleon B., and his wife, Annie Broward, have revealed the progressive leadership of the family since the Civil War. The shame of slavery – like the many sins afflicting humanity – has brought about great suffering. This includes the deaths of men from the North and the South. There were more than 1.5 million casualties’, deaths and life changing injuries, in the 19th century when my great grandparents were born.  Annie in the North. Napoleon in the South.

Rebuilding the nation without a plan and the assassination of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, led to segregation and personal hardship for many families throughout the nation. In Deep South cities like Tuskegee, Alabama, historic relationships were born. This includes the friendship of my late Aunt Florida Douglass Broward Segrest and Civil Rights attorney Fred David Gray.

Aunt Florida Douglass Broward with her Father, Florida Governor Napoleon B. Broward, (Holding a water hose – 1908)

The Broward/Segrest family is one of largest in the descendants of Napoleon and Annie.  My own family, the Broward/Hardee family, is the largest. My grandparents, Enid Lyle Broward and Lucius Augustus Hardee were blessed with seven children, including my late father, Randolph McKee Hardee Sr. My father was influenced by his mother’s sister, Aunt Florida, in the work to bring about inclusion of African Americans in the Deep South. My father founded a company selling Black History books and the “I Have a Dream” Album in Jacksonville, Florida.  

Dad trained an all-Black sales force of young men who worked to bring about greater knowledge in the African American homes of their own ancestors and their many accomplishments in this nation. Dad also founded SAA, the Southeast Automobile Association, which sold car insurance to the African American community often denied insurance by other companies.

In the Segrest family, the work for integration was a prized value passed onto all the sons of Henry Neill and Florida Broward Segrest. Henry Neill Segrest Jr., the eldest son of Henry Neill and Florida would continue to work for the Civil Rights of all people by preaching a message of  justice and equity to his congregants in the Presbyterian Churches of Tallassee and Montgomery, Alabama. His identical twin brother, Douglas Broward Segrest, was a federal prosecutor and confronted Governor Wallace on the steps of the Tuskegee Schoolhouse when Wallace attempted to block desegregation.

In 2018 at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. Beau Emerson Lyle joins Cousin “Steve” (Stephen Graham Segrest) in meeting iconic civil rights attorney, Fred David Gray. Interview for #GirlsonthePorch.

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