May Mann Jennings took Tallahassee like a genteel storm

Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 3/1/17

At the turn of the 20th century, Florida was still new to state politics with perhaps a little too much frontier mentality and memories of the Civil War not completely settled from the Civil War. At …

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May Mann Jennings took Tallahassee like a genteel storm

Posted

At the turn of the 20th century, Florida was still new to state politics with perhaps a little too much frontier mentality and memories of the Civil War not completely settled from the Civil War. At any rate, politics was wild and wooly. Most candidates and voters were grateful to get through elections and legislative sessions with no gunplay.

In Tallahassee, frequent shouting matches, fistfights and the occasional horse whipping were a given. Some said they walked a thin line between mayhem on one side and chaos on the other.

May Mann Jennings, who for a good part of her life was unable to vote much less hold public office, was among the most skilled politicians of the times. Clay County has long laid claim to this woman and her family.

May Mann’s political training began almost in the cradle when at age nine, in 1882, her mother died and her father became Senator Austin Mann from Hernando County in the Crystal River area. She and her older sister were enrolled in St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Augustine. There, she excelled in the rigorous academic curriculum and traditional southern finishing school training in refined deportment.

School vacations were spent in Tallahassee when the legislature was in session. Natural curiosity inspired her to explore and learn all the ins and outs of the capital city. Her father introduced her to his peers and her accomplished curtsey and nun-instilled demeanor made her an immediate success. But she sought out the regular people and charmed them as well. She listened and remembered everything.

Then, in the late 1800s, Austin Mann’s political enemies conspired to gerrymander him out of office. He ran in newly formed Citrus County but was defeated when his opponent accused him of being an aristocrat and sleeping in a nightshirt. Naturally, it was a malicious lie.

Mann relocated to Brooksville and in 1890 was soon back in the fray and running for a seat in the House of Representatives. May, who had recently graduated valedictorian of her class, proved an able campaigner.

Austin Mann was elected and, during the campaign, May met her future husband then-Judge William Sherman Jennings, a young up and comer in the Democratic Party.

Their courtship continued when they both traveled to the capital where May assumed responsibility for her father’s appointments, correspondence and hostess duties. Sometimes she was the only woman in the capital corridors and offices full of suspender snapping back slapping politicos and their fawning hangers on.

The entire membership of the Florida legislature walked them down the aisle when they married on May 12, 1891. Jennings’ ascent in the Democratic Party was one of the most rapid in history and many credit May’s intimate knowledge of state politics and politicians and her vast network of women friends from her tireless efforts for the Florida Federation of Woman’s Clubs.

On November 6, 1900, the voters of Florida elected William Sherman Jennings the eighteenth governor of the state. After serving one term Gov. Jennings, May and twelve-year-old son, Sherman Bryan, settled in Jacksonville. The family also spent time at their farm property near Middleburg in Clay County. May reveled in again having a hen house and riding horses as in her earliest days.

May Mann Jennings was a natural at negotiating the minefield of politics in turn of the century Florida. She did it with intellect and charm, in corsets, bustles and immaculate white gloves never stirring a hair of her signature Gibson Girl hair style.

She never resorted to fisticuffs, guns or a horsewhip.

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