Bloodlines and battle lines: Tallahassee family of Francis Eppes caught in FSU debate
On a corner wall in the sprawling two-story house off Ox Bottom Road hangs a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. Next to it are sketches of Jefferson’s Virginia homestead, Monticello.
The artwork pays homage to the distinguished lineage of Nicholas Eppes Sr.
The 90-year-old is Jefferson's great, great, great-grandson. He also is the great-grandson of Francis Eppes, a former mayor and civic leader of early Tallahassee, who until recently, has been honored as the “founder” of Florida State University. An Eppes statue sits in front of the Westcott Building and a building is named in his memory.
The Jefferson-Eppes ancestry is a source of immense pride for Eppes, and Betty, his wife of 65 years.
But a cloud hangs over the Eppes name. Critics say it's tainted by a legacy of slave ownership and question Francis Eppes' role in founding what has become FSU.
The family clan has been largely silent during months of presentations, historical presentations and public input as the President’s Advisory Panel on University Namings and Recognitions met to decide the fate of the Eppes statue or his name on the building. None had participated in the public hearings, believing it would bring unwanted attention to a sensitive issue.
Now they are speaking out. Recently, the patriarch, matriarch and several generations of their descendants convened at the family home to push back at what they see as attempts by some in the FSU community to sully their ancestor's name and devalue his legacy.
“A small group of people are trying to get (the statue) moved,” said Eppes Sr. “I just think it’s ridiculous, after all he did, that they would try and remove the statue or rename the building.
“He helped found it and now they are trying to get rid of him,” Eppes Sr. said firmly. “We are proud that we are related to Francis Eppes, as well as Thomas Jefferson. Leave it alone!”
Panel recommends removal
The timing of the family's outrage is crucial. Earlier this month, the Advisory Panel recommended removing the Francis Eppes statue and his name from one of the campus' oldest buildings.
Its recommendation is expected to be sent to FSU President John Thrasher. Among the strongest proponents for the removal were members of FSU’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, who point to Eppes' history as a slave owner undeserving of honor.
Before its vote, the 15-member panel heard presentations confirming Eppes’ slave ownership and clarifying his role successfully lobbying to bring the State Seminary West of the Suwannee River to Tallahassee. But he wasn't the only founder.
Betty Eppes said nobody from FSU has reached out to the family, but she said they are not taking it personally.
“It’s hard to get in touch with a lot of people,” she said. “We just felt like they would realize how we feel, so, they wouldn’t need to get in touch with us.”
Family history goes back centuries
Like many longtime residents of Leon County, the Eppes family can trace their family history centuries into the past. Nicholas Sr. and Betty are the former owners of Eppes Hardware, which started as Eppes-Edenfield Hardware in 1959 and operated until it closed in 1995.
Two of their sons, Nicholas Jr. and Scott, manage the Eppes Decorating Centers in town, and a third son, Jeff, works for the state. They have nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Their ancestor, Francis Eppes, born on Sept. 20, 1801, was the son of President Jefferson’s daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes and his wife’s nephew, John Wayles Eppes, according to historical papers.
Jefferson was close to Francis, who spent summers at Monticello, and instilled in him the importance of education. Francis Eppes went on to study at what is now Georgetown University and what is now the University of South Carolina.
In 1827, he moved to Florida, followed by family and reportedly hundreds of slaves and built a log cabin on plantation property in northeast Tallahassee, near Proctor Road, called L’Eau Noir.
Eppes became involved in the community, serving as one of the founders of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown, contributing $500 toward its construction, according to the Monticello.org web site.
He was later named Justice of the Peace in 1833 by Gov. William DuVal, and sold L’Eau Noir and bought a second, 1,900-acre plantation on Lake Lafayette east of town. He also built a home at North Monroe and Brevard streets.
By 1841, he was named intendent, or mayor, of Tallahassee for four consecutive one-year terms, according to the report. He also redesigned the boundaries of the Old City Cemetery downtown, where blacks and whites are buried in separate sections.
In 1836, Eppes and his father-in-law, were part of a group lobbying to get a seminary established in Tallahassee. The Congressional effort was not successful, but in 1851, the Legislature passed authorization to establish two seminaries one east of the Suwannee River and another west.
In 1856, Eppes, as the intendent of Tallahassee, offered a new building, $10,000 in cash (with annual payments of $2,000) to land a seminary in Tallahassee. That was the establishment of Florida State.
The seminary was directed by a five-member Board of Education, of which Eppes served for 11 years, eight of them as president.
Eppes “instilled in the institution the Jeffersonian ideals which characterize it today,” reads FSU’s history.
“We’re proud of our heritage," Betty Eppes said. “We feel more consideration should be given to what he did for FSU, not only what happened a long time ago. It does change through the years, how you feel about things. We would like to see more consideration of that, other than he owned some slaves.
"I don’t think he did anything wrong,” added the 88-year-old matriarch. “He had slaves, but a lot of other people did, too. They are just trying to make him look like a terrible person.”
Panel hears perspective on slaves, founding of FSU
In April, Renisha Gibbs, appointed chair of the FSU panel by Thrasher, invited John Cable, to address the board. Cable is a doctoral candidate studying history at FSU. He also holds an undergraduate and a master’s degree from Georgia College.
His research shows Eppes and his family traveled to Tallahassee in a caravan, including “hundreds of slaves.” Other documents say Eppes’s slaves included 20 purchased from Jefferson.
Cable told the panel Eppes “increased his slave holdings as he became more successful,” as a planter, allowing him to sell his first plantation and build the larger one on Lake Lafayette.
Cable said his research also shows his duties as Justice of the Peace would have involved Eppes rounding up those causing disturbances. SDS members labeled him a “slave catcher.”
In response to the panel, Cable said documents he’s reviewed listed Eppes as “one of many people” trying to get the seminary located in Tallahassee, but he hadn’t found any minutes supporting Eppes as “the guy” leading the movement.
Former FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte, who commissioned the statue of Eppes, as well as other historic landmarks at FSU, addressed the panel in support of Eppes. He said he chose Eppes for his role in getting the seminary established, as well as a good community citizen and manager. He also told the panel that he should have given a fuller picture of Eppes’s background, including his slave ownership.
Like D'Alemberte, Nicholas Eppes III, 35, wants to see the statue remain. He doesn't object to adding context on his ancestor's background, including his slave ownership.
'I don't think slave ownership defines him'
The Eppes family members say their ancestor's work should be honored at FSU because of his vision for education and for helping to seed what FSU has become known for internationally.
“His legacy is really focused on education,” said Chris Eppes, 35, grandson of Nicholas Eppes Sr. "(Eppes’) statue is a symbol of being a proponent of education. The people can thank him. He deserves a lot of credit for the university being there, not only for the alumni, but to the people of Tallahassee.”
He said slave ownership is a “black eye to American history,” but “I don’t think slave ownership defines him. It disturbs me to see him defined as that.”
Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @byrondobson.
What Eppes descendants ancestors said
Jeff Eppes, 57, one of three sons of Nicholas and Betty Eppes, said he’s troubled that his ancestor’s contributions are being questioned because he was a slaver owner.
“Francis Eppes was living in that culture at that time,” he said. “If we were to say everyone who has done anything wrong and all we have is perfect beings representing these schools, we wouldn’t have anybody (recognized).
“He invested in Tallahassee by working to get the seminary started here,” he said. “That is the heritage of what he did. Him owning slaves was a fact, it's not something that defines him.”
Scott Eppes Sr., 51, said “We get a lot of customers coming in regularly who are appreciative of our heritage and where we come from.”
Nicholas Eppes Sr.’s niece, Cissy DuBose, great-great-granddaughter of Francis Eppes said FSU is judging Francis Eppes “by today’s standards” and that’s wrong.
“I am very proud of the Eppes name,” said DuBose, 68, who attended the unveiling of the statue in January 2002. “No matter what happens, I still will be proud for all the work my ancestors have done.”