The February 21, 2018 edition of the New York Times ran an interesting essay by Mary Lou Foy of The Miami Herald via Reuters on the woman for whom the high school in Parkland, Florida is named. I am guessing those who never spent much time in Florida have ever heard the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) until it was connected to the second most lethal school shooting in US history on February 14.
Despite many visits to Florida over the years, including the three years I spent there as an undergraduate in college, I am sad to admit that I had never heard of her either until the spring of 1994 when I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Florida Historical Society in Fort Myers. Sitting in a beach tiki bar one evening a colleague who was an authority on Ms. Douglas brought me up to snuff on this fascinating woman. I don’t want her name to only be associated with a needless and senseless atrocity, one more in a long string of school shootings which our leaders, our government, wants to do nothing about as it would interdict the ready and steady flow of cash flowing into their coffers from the National Rifle Association. I am proud to see and hear the surviving students in Parkland, and others joining them around the United States, learning an important lesson in activism from Ms. Douglas. That is perhaps a greater tribute to her memory than any other than can be afforded her.
Marjory Stoneman was born in 1890 in Minnesota where she was raised. Her father was a judge and her mother a concert violinist. She went East in 1908 and graduated from Wellesley College, near Boston, in 1912. She married Kenneth Douglas, a local newspaper journalist, in 1914 but she soon realized this was a mistake and in the autumn of 1915 an uncle encouraged her to make the move south to Miami where fewer than 5,000 people lived there. She joined her father Frank Stoneman, who in 1903 became the first publisher of the Miami Evening Record, the newspaper that would in 1910 become The Miami Herald. Marjory worked for a time as a reporter for the paper before going overseas during World War I, serving with the American Red Cross in France, Belgium, Italy and in the Balkans. She returned to the paper after the war and worked for a time as an assistant editor. She eventually left the paper in 1923.
During her early years in South Florida, Douglas took up the activist cause of responsible urban planning as the population grew by more than 100,000 inhabitants over the course of a single decade. She opposed the policy instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the former Florida governor (1905-1909), to drain the Everglades in order to reclaim land for agricultural cultivation in South Florida. This advocacy would continue long after she gave up newspaper journalism.
From 1920 until her centenary in 1990, she wrote and published dozens of articles, young adult fiction stories, and numerous book reviews. The natural South Florida landscape, especially the Everglades, and its animal inhabitants were recurring themes in her fictional stories while she continued to write on environmental issues and in support of the women’s suffrage movement, civil rights and the revocation of Prohibition. She served on the editorial board of the new University of Miami Press, and supported the Junior Museum of Miami and slum clearance in Coconut Grove where she lived in an English-styled cottage from 1926 until the end of her life.
Douglas continued to oppose the draining of the Everglades while advocating for its preservation. She lead the campaign to have the central core of the Everglades preserved as a national park in 1947, the same year her seminal book, The Everglades: River of Grass, was published by Rinehart & Company as part of a book series focusing on US rivers. It remains in print 70 years after its publication and it has become a classic treatise on the importance of US wetlands; the Everglades being the largest. They are not useless swamps, but rather a complex system of tenuous ecosystems. The Everglades is actually no swamp at all, but a 60 mile wide, 100 mile long shallow river running from Lake Okeechobee in the north to Florida Bay in the south. Even today the Everglades are continually subjected to over-drainage, pollution from adjacent agriculture, and the encroachment of urban sprawl along its eastern margins. The population of what is now the Miami metropolitan area has grown from 100,000 to over six million in the past century roughly coinciding with Ms. Douglas’ lifetime. Who can deny the Everglades are under assault and require protection? I saw this damage up close during my own first visit to the Everglades in 2010. Ms. Douglas understood this threat perhaps better than anyone. I read her book while I was there. The first sentence says it all. ''There are no other Everglades in the world.''
Douglas was one of the founders of the Friends of the Everglades in 1969 and today it has over 5,000 members . . . the population of Miami when she first arrived there. The organization has at its goal that this “vast, magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost.'' She continued to speak out against those who plundered the Everglades wishing that one day the message would get through to those who refused to recognize the importance of this valuable and irreplaceable ecosystem. ''I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I say it's got to be done.''
In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration endorsed efforts during Douglas’ lifetime to stop this plunder and to restore the Everglades’ natural water flow. Naturally this was opposed by agribusiness, especially the sugar industry, which claimed that the damage to the Everglades was the result of urban sprawl. The battle continues to this very day.
During the 2016 election campaign our current president [#NotMyPresident] stated that, if elected, his administration would cooperate in efforts “to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades.” During a campaign visit to South Florida he flew over the Everglades; “ let me tell you when you fly over the Everglades and you look at those gators and you look at those water moccasins, you say, I better have a good helicopter.” Sure, that’s what’s most important. His well being and not that of the Everglades. He promised to “help you upgrade water and wastewater — and you know you have a huge problem with wastewater — so that the Florida aquifer is pure and safe from pollution. We have to do it.” Unfortunately these claims and promises have proven to be typical Trump claptrap. He has also made it clear he plans to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and scale back environmental regulations which would protect the Everglades. Florida Senator Bill Nelson points to Trump’s appointments, including Scott Pruitt at EPA. “You can tell a lot about a fella by the company he keeps and you can tell a lot about a president by the appointment that he makes, and here’s a good example.” Some battles have been won over the years, but the war to save the Everglades still wages at the state and federal levels. Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ vision is still alive and cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Ms. Douglas’ name has become synonymous with environmentalism and efforts to protect Florida’s Everglades. In May 1998, following her death at age 108, her ashes were scattered over the portion of Everglades National Park that bears her name. The building in Tallahassee, the state capital, that houses the state Department of Environmental Protection is named in her honor as is a nature center on Key Biscayne, near Miami. Several parks and schools throughout the state bear her name, including the high school where the recent atrocity took place. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was established in Parkland, east of Pompano Beach, in 1990 to commemorate her centenary. Ironically, Parkland is a relatively newer community in the ever-expanding urban sprawl fast encroaching on the Everglades from the east.
Her name has been associated with environmental activism throughout the 20th century and beyond, yet it is now unfortunately married to one of the most deadly school shootings in US history. The people of Florida have long known the name of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and what it has come to represent. Everyone should know. If you have never read her book, you should take the time to do so.
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