Jennings, May Elizabeth Mann
- Linda D. Vance
Jennings, May Elizabeth Mann (25 April 1872–24 April 1963), civic leader and social activist, was born in Centerville, New Jersey, the daughter of Austin Shuey Mann and Rachel Kline. In 1873 the Mann family moved to Hernando County, Florida, where Austin Mann pursued business and political interests, serving three terms as a state senator and as a leader of the national Farmer’s Alliance. After the death of her mother in 1882, May was enrolled as a year-round boarder at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Augustine. She graduated as valedictorian of her class in 1889 and spent the next two years managing her father’s offices in Brooksville and Tallahassee.
In 1891 May Mann married William Sherman Jennings, a cousin of William Jennings Bryan. A Hernando County judge, William Jennings served in the state legislature and one term as governor (1901–1904); the couple had one child. In 1905 they moved to Springfield, a suburb of Jacksonville, where they made their primary home. They also owned a farm at Middleburg and a vacation home near Miami. From 1905 May Jennings expended considerable political acumen and energy on behalf of various civic and social causes. She chaired the Jacksonville Woman’s Club’s civic and public health committees, served as chair of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s state old trail and roads committee, served as president of the Springfield Improvement Association, and chaired committees that aided Jacksonville’s Children’s Home Society, Daniel Memorial Orphanage, St. Luke’s Hospital, and Young Women’s Christian Association.
From 1914 to 1917 Jennings served as president of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, the state’s largest women’s organization with more than ten thousand members. As leader she promoted the establishment of local libraries, parks, and public sanitation and beautification projects, and she led the fight to modernize the state’s reform schools and to create a humane juvenile justice system. In addition the federation lobbied to secure compulsory education, child labor, and food and drug laws and to obtain the franchise for women.
But May Jennings is remembered primarily for her lifelong promotion of conservation and the role she played in the struggle to save the state’s flora, fauna, and environment from developers. Under her leadership the federation acquired land near Homestead, where it established Royal Palm Park (1916), the state’s first privately funded and operated public park. Royal Palm became the forerunner and nucleus of Everglades National Park (1947). From 1917 to 1936 while Jennings chaired the federation’s conservation committee, few projects or causes relating to the environment escaped her involvement. In 1919 she cofounded the Florida Forestry Association, and from the 1920s until her death she worked to save Turtle Mound and other state historic and wildlife sites. As a founding member of the Florida Audubon Society she was a lifelong advocate of the state’s pelicans and other shore birds. From 1927 to 1961 she chaired the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s statewide beautification committee and during those same years she headed the Duval County Highway Beautification Association.
A staunch supporter of the Democratic party, May Jennings was a cofounder of the state League of Women Voters, the Democratic Women’s Clubs of Jacksonville, and the Florida Legislative Council, and from 1933 to 1962 she served as president of Duval County Democratic Women, Inc.
During her long public career May Jennings received numerous state and national awards, including a Citation of Merit from the National Park Service (1947). A state highway marker near Yulee stands in her honor. She died in Jacksonville.
May Jennings’s papers, including correspondence president of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, are in the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, Gainesville. A short sketch of Jennings’s accomplishments as a clubwoman is in Lucy Worthington Blackman, The Women of Florida, vol. 2 (1940). The most important source is the biography by Linda D. Vance, May Mann Jennings, Florida’s Genteel Activist (1985).