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Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green
by Paul Braun

Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green has been a gathering place for students, faculty, administrators and dignitaries on FSU’s campus for more than a century.  A green is an area set aside for special purposes, oftentimes enriching its tradition through continuing public ceremonies and private events.  A green may officially achieve the status of hallowed ground and be designated with a name.  Florida State University has three such greens on its campus: Landis, Sandels and Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green. 

The latter may arguably hold the richest in historical tradition.
If this piece of earth could speak, it would have a lot to say.  Its history spans more than a dozen decades.  Thousands of committed souls to higher education have passed through this green.  It is also fitting that the green includes a memorial to students who died while attending FSU.  But this is only a fraction of the story of this green … and its history is ongoing.

November 10, 1990, Florida State University President Bernard Sliger dedicated this historical half-acre site to honor Mina Jo Powell, a lifelong financial contributor to FSU and a relentless advocate and protector of green, open spaces on FSU’s campus (alumna, BS 1950, MS 1963).

This map from the Florida State Archives illustrates that in 1885 the land we honor as Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green (red dot) was a vacant lot at the edge of town.  The hilltop where Westcott and the plaza fountain exist today is marked with a wooden-framed white structure.  Curiously, the legend calls this schoolhouse looking building the “University of Florida.”  In actuality, it would be the “West Florida Seminary,” established in 1851-57.

In 1887, two years after this map, The History of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University states that the Florida State Legislature established a college for African-Americans, called the “State Normal College for Colored Students.”  It chose a site “west of Tallahassee on a commanding hill which now is the home site of Florida State University.” Exact location is debatable.

 Presumably, upon this vacant land adjoining the seminary the State Board of Education built two small wooden structures “equipped with fifty wooden desks.”  FSU historian Dr. Steve Edwards affirms, “FAMU was founded on that corner.” It is likely these humble structures marking the beginning of FAMU stood on Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green.  In 1891, The Normal College moved to the Duval Plantation, FAMU’s present site, relinquishing its original so the State could establish the “Florida Female College.”

One of two indecipherable markes in Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green: aiming north, Longmire in the background

One of two indecipherable markes in Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green: aiming south, Westcott in the background

There is a mystery today regarding two markers in Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green.  They no longer tell what they memorialized.  Their small bronze plaques face upward, which as a result over time falling rain has erased the dedications as if sandblasted.  Charcoal rubbing revealed nothing.  But, what if they could speak?  Would they tell us that here once stood two humble structures—marking the first-ever site of a college in Florida, created exclusively for African-Americans?

Not anything in or about the green tells us FAMU’s story.  James Melton retired Special Projects Coordinator for FSU Alumni Affairs (and according to Dr. Edwards, the moving force in 1990 for naming this green after Mina Jo Powell) concurs these markers most likely would tell a different story.  Melton recalls that years ago class reunions oftentimes planted trees in this green, and, more than likely, these markers bear memory to a couple of those occasions.   
June 1950 was a turning point in the history of this green.  It marked the end of a nearly five-decade long tradition of holding commencement ceremonies there.  Mina Jo Powell graduated that year with 665 other seniors.  That year’s ceremony included the first class of men who began as freshmen in 1946—when the Florida State College for Women (revised from “Florida Female College” in 1905) officially admitted men and became Florida State University.  French Ambassador Henri Bonnet delivered the commencement address to the class.

Yet, to appreciate fully the dimensions of change underway at FSU, we need only to consider that the 1950’s September enrollment hit an all-time peak of 6,399.  No longer could this small green accommodate graduating classes.  The obvious choice was to hold future commencements at the newly completed Doak Campbell Stadium, dedicated October 28, 1950.

From the Tallahassee Democrat, the “Class of 1950” gathered in the green.  Facing north, Longmire is the building. 
Mina Jo Powell is among these graduates.
(Photo: Democrat, June 7, 1950)

FSU’s ever-growing enrollment during the ensuing decades brought with it a need for more classrooms and dormitories.  To the dismay of many alumni, especially graduates prior to 1951—according to Mina Jo Powell—buildings seemed to wedge themselves on campus, unrestrained and with a blind eye toward history and tradition.  On more than one occasion, that small half-acre green attracted plans to use it as a building site.  But each time—says James Melton, retired Alumni Coordinator—Mina Jo Powell rallied to preserve it.  Finally, in 1990, the notion struck Melton and President Sliger that IF the university dedicated that green in someone’s name, this, in all likelihood, would preserve it forever.

Mina Jo Powell tells the same story, recalling her conversation with Melton in which he related President Sliger speaking to him, “’Name it after somebody and nothing can happen to it.’”  She humbly adds, though, “They picked a ‘nobody,’ they picked me.”

Therefore, November 10, 1991, was a turning point in the history of this green.  A plot of earth sometimes referred to as “that lot next to Longmire”; or, “that lot behind Psychology—you know, by Epps.”  It rarely received the honor due it, such as “Alumni Green” or “Commencement Green,” says Melton. 

Dr. Steve Edwards, then-Dean of the Faculty in 1990, introduced President Sliger at the ceremony.  President Sliger’s words are worth remembering—for more reasons than one:

Mina Jo you have impressed us with your accomplishments, inspired us with you leadership, enriched us with your generosity and sustained us with your constant loyalty and now it is our turn.  As President of the Florida State University, I name this lovely green in your honor and will place a sundial here to mark this area and bear the message, “The Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green dedicated in honor of the generations of students who find on this campus their sunny hours of learning and friendship.”  (“Naming of Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green (November 10, 1991),” from the “Bernard F. Sliger Collection,” Container: Box 14, Folder 6; Extent: 3 items; Strozier, Special Collections.)

There is, however, a problem:  No sundial ever appeared, nor anything else bearing such an inscription. 

James Melton advises that it is not too late to place a sundial in Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green, as promised, and have it inscribed.

Dr. Edwards questions the accuracy of President Sliger’s speech found in the archives at Special Collections.  He recalls drafting the brochure and President Sliger’s words for the ceremony.  Dr. Edwards believes that a sundial was never intended for the Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green.  He suggests instead that a general staff member compiled the notes of the speech later from memory.  He points out that there is a sundial in front of Strozier Library, at Landis Green, and this is likely the sundial erroneously connected to Mina Jo Powell in the transcription of President Sliger’s speech.

Nonetheless, Mina Jo Powell remains an impassioned and devoted supporter of FSU.  In the Florida State University Medical School Magazine, summer 2006 (28-9), we read again of “Mina Jo Powell, With Gratitude.”  It records Ms. Powell among a short list of a precious few who helped get FSU’s new Medical School up and running.  Each donor contributed “in excess of one-million dollars.”

Preserving the green for future generations took another positive turn in October 2000.  Sarah James (BS, 2002) drew inspiration to create a calm, contemplative site on campus after experiencing the lack of a serene place to remember students who died while attending FSU.  As a senator in the Student Government Association, she convinced the body to allocate $50,000 for a memorial.  When James achieved this, the scope of the monument and its location was undecided.  Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green was one of four sites James and others considered—ultimately choosing this locale based on its central location and historically rich tradition.

Mark Bertolami of Campus Planning and Space Management recalled James’s quiet commitment and personal effort, summing, “She moved a mountain.”  According to Bertolami and Robert Bischoff, head of FSU’s Master Craftsman Studio, James’s humble resolve inspired and compelled their interest, and they contend that she, alone, brought about the “Memorial Fountain and Pond” in Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green.

A Memorial that they agree incorporates the serenity Sarah James had envisioned with the assurance of the green’s preservation that Mina Jo Powell, James Melton, and President Sliger had dreamed.

Although originally planned, a ceremony to dedicate the Memorial apparently never occurred.  Sarah James graduated and currently works in New York City.  As for Mina Jo Powell, she said she is happy to see this monument in the green that bears her name.       

Bischoff arranged with a monument company in Albany, Georgia for the purchase and delivery of the 20-ton black granite rock from a quarry in Africa.  It arrived by ship in Savannah, a large square stone.  Daryl Hall, of Albany, cut, chiseled, polished and inscribed it.  Bischoff recalled that setting the monument drew serious speculation and eventually loads of smiles and chuckles from staff and onlookers.  Everybody wondered how the crane’s straps could come out from under the stone after it was set on the foundation.  The workers nonchalantly put four plastic bags of ice bought at a convenience store in between the monument and slab.  That ice held the massive stone aloft long enough to pull out the straps.  It melted, and the rock was set.  Bischoff is sure archaeologist will scratch their heads over how such cheerful looking plastic ice bags got under there. 
Your Friends are not dead, but gone before,
Advanced a stage or two upon that road
Which you must travel in the steps they trod


An immense, double-seated stone bench sits in Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green—indeed, there are many like it elsewhere around campus—affiliated with the university’s bench-sponsoring program that honors faculty and alumni.  Looking straight at that bench, the Memorial monument is visible in its background—slightly beyond it.  This particular bench honors Mina Jo Powell.  Compared to other bench plaques that extol dedications in paragraph-length versions, it is conspicuously plain.  It simply reads:

powell green
Sarah James and Mina Jo Powell have never met. Yet they share so much. Someday maybe a bench dedicated to Sarah James will sit in this green.

The story about this half-acre piece of turf known as Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green is doubtlessly ongoing.  Presently, there are not any plans to add to it or build anything on it.  Across time—more than a century of which we know—thousands of people have congregated on this small section of earth.  Some brought with them and others created enumerable cheers and tears upon this ground.  What would ghosts from the past want us to know about this place?  Would we see an African-American pointing out a blessed site where once stood a white, clapboard school?  An unassuming building in appearance, but with rickety steps that once climbed led struggling generations far outside its single room and into arenas of opportunity that are vastly beyond any physical measurement?

 From the first half of the twentieth century, what of the other Mina Jo Powells who received diplomas on this green and were challenged to go forth and make good things happen for themselves and others—what would they tell us now?  And, a little later on, as alumni who are more recent return to campus is this one of those life-defining places they seek to reconnect with who they were?  Do they conjure in their memories choices they planned, and others they made?  And might not these choices have complemented another, involving two lives, or more—as parents and as grandparents, they return where their children and children’s children attend?

 There is no easy answer for these questions.

But the green’s evolution as a site of memories for today’s students is stirring.  Bob Bischoff tells that the reflection pond in front of the Student Memorial—strangely enough—almost did not happen.  There were concerns that students would put soap in it.  Bischoff undertook a risky move that he believed would tap the natural kindness inside everybody.  He stocked the pond with fish.  In over five years now, there has never been the first drop of soap in that pond.  Furthermore, he has seen students leaving for summer, and after graduation, who set their own fish free there.

The Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green is more than a lawn with benches and a monument—or mere green space without a building.  Rather, in the imagination of students, alumni, faculty, and administrators, it is a temple in the mind.


Mark Bertolami, Florida State University Campus Planning and Space Management, telephone discussions with the author, September 21, October 3, 4, 2006.  Additionally, in file of author are email exchanges, October 3, 4, 5, 2006.

Robert Bischoff, Florida State University Master Craftsman Studio, telephone and in-person discussions with the author, September 21, October 3, November 2, October 4, 2006, respectively.  Additionally, in file of author are email exchanges, September 22, 2006.  The Master Craftsman Studio provided the group photo of setting the “Memorial Monument” monument and its counterpart with grass shown around the pond.

Steve Edwards, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Physics and former-Dean of the Faculty, 1990, telephone discussions with the author, October 2, 3, 2006.  Additionally, in file of author are email exchanges, October 4, 5, 10, 11, which include attachments of documents of memoranda with “Jim Melton” and recollections of the dedication of the Mina Jo Powell Alumni Green.  Emails include discussions regarding the sundial and origination of FAMU at the green.

Sarah James, telephone discussions with the author, October 10, 11, 2006.  Additionally, in file of the author are email exchanges, October 10, 12, 13, 2006, which include Web-link references to online-FSU Student Government Association minutes.

James H. Melton, Special Projects Florida State University Alumni Affairs, telephone discussions with the author, October 17, 2006.

Leedell W. Neyland and John W. Riley, The History of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1963), for quotations see 10, 11, and for general reference see 12-33.

Mina Jo Powell, telephone discussion with the author, October 17, 2006.

Maxine Stern, editor, FSU Voices: An Informal History of 150 years, 1st edition (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 2002), reference to “first class of men” in 1950, see section titled “End of an Era.”

The Tallahassee Democrat
, “Enrollment at Peak; Major Building Program Is Underway,” B-1, December 31, 1950.

Photographs by Paul Braun

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