A grand(motherly) surprise
Jacksonville lawyer learns of unsuspected activist history
Jacksonville attorney Thomas S. Edwards, Jr., knew quite a bit about his grandfather, Ray Edwards, who died before the younger Edwards was born.
A wounded WWI veteran and engineer, the senior Edwards moved to Jacksonville with his wife, Lucy Ames Edwards, in the 1930s to run local Civilian Conservation Corps operations. He went on to be founding president of the Duval County Housing Authority (one of the first housing projects in the country), construct seawalls up and down the Florida coast (many of which are still standing), and work on the building of the interstate highway system.
“I have correspondence between my granddad and the president of the United States advocating for the funding of the housing projects,” Edwards said. “There was an entire generation of leaders in the city of Jacksonville who were raised in those projects [including former Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead].”
About his grandmother, who never remarried after her husband died and lived to 100, Edwards knew she had been a teacher, was devoted to her church and family, was an avid reader, and loved to travel.
“She was a life member of the Audubon Society and she absolutely loved to travel and birdwatch,” he said. “She did photos of all her travels and photos of hikes looking at different kinds of birds, and to a lesser degree other animals and flowers.”
The result was slide shows presented at churches, Audubon Society meetings, and her grandchildren’s school classes.
What he hadn’t suspected was the activism that marked his grandmother’s early life. It was recently unearthed by a more than 100-year-old picture that his sister, Ginny, found in one of his grandmother’s photo albums.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, Edwards posted the picture online during this year’s Law Day celebrations.
As Edwards put it in the Facebook post, “To our surprise, our staid, conservative, church going grandmother was a radical in her youth! She was President of the Class of 1917 at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College [now Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Va.]! This picture is of her preparing to lead the women of Randolph-Macon on a march in Washington, D.C., in support of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We believe this was taken in 1917 and she is accompanied by her sister, Cora Ames Byrd — Class of 1919.
“What they did was controversial — women marching were spat upon and otherwise attacked — though generally not with the violence of the later civil rights marches. These women were regularly attacked in the press of the day.”
Edwards linked a story about the war of postcards — the memes of the time — that surrounded the suffragette battles in both England and the U.S. (https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/war-on-women-waged-in-postcards-memes-from-the-suffragist-era/). The article recounted how protesting women in both countries were sometimes arrested and when some then went on hunger strikes, they were force fed.
He sees some of his grandmother’s traits in his professional life, noting her time as a teacher.
“As a lawyer who does trial work, a part of that is effectively teaching juries,” Edwards said. “She had an intellectual curiosity and was a big reader throughout her life. As a trial lawyer, you’re learning every day.”
He mused, “I’m not sure what else I’d do if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing every day. It’s an intellectual challenge every day.”
Perhaps that’s best summed up by the motto of his grandmother’s college: “Vita Abundantior” or Life More Abundant.