The Florida Historical Society is presenting the original theatrical production “Female Florida: Historic Women in Their Own Words,” Sunday at 2:00 pm at the Rossetter House Museum and Gardens in Eau Gallie.
The production was created using oral histories and autobiographical writings by businesswoman Caroline P. Rossetter, writer Zora Neale Hurston, environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
Rossetter and Douglas are being portrayed by Marion C. Marsh. Hurston and Bethune are played by Jossalynn Moukouanga. Both Marsh and Moukouanga are professional actresses from Orlando.
The Rossetter House Museum and Gardens is a particularly appropriate place to perform “Female Florida,” as Caroline P. Rossetter was the last resident of the home, and Hurston spent some of her most productive years living in a cottage just blocks away.
“Performing this work where these women lived adds a bit of wonder about who we will meet after the show and their motivations for joining us in the telling of these stories by such strong women,” says Moukouanga. “It’s thrilling to say the least, and a privilege I don’t take lightly,” adds Marsh.
Caroline P. Rossetter, at the tender age of 23, listened at the keyhole as a debate took place behind closed doors at the Standard Oil Company office in Louisville, Kentucky. Upon her father’s death, Carrie Rossetter requested that she be allowed to take over his Standard Oil Agency in Brevard County, Florida. That request sparked a heated discussion.
The year was 1921, and women had received the right to vote in the United States just months before. The idea of a woman being able to run a business was preposterous to some.
Finally, Carrie heard a decisive voice rise over the din, saying “Let the little lady have it! She won’t last a year and we’ll give it to a man!” With that, Caroline P. Rossetter became the first female Standard Oil Agent.
The loudly stated prediction was at least partially accurate. Rossetter didn’t last a year as a Standard Oil Agent. She lasted 62 years, becoming one of the company’s most successful representatives until her retirement at the age of 85.
Before her death in 1999, at the age of 101, Caroline P. Rossetter, along with her sister Ella, established a trust to secure the preservation of their family home as an historical museum.
On July 9, 1951, writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote in a letter to Florida historian Jean Parker Waterbury: “Somehow, this one spot on earth feels like home to me. I have always intended to come back here. That is why I am doing so much to make a go of it.”
While Hurston is most closely associated with the town of Eatonville, she was talking about Brevard County when she wrote that she was “the happiest I have been in the last ten years” and that Eau Gallie was where she wanted to “build a comfortable little new house” to live out the rest of her life.
While living in Eau Gallie in 1929, Hurston wrote her most important collection of folklore, Mules and Men. She returned to the same house in the 1950s.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a reporter for the Miami Herald, but is best known for her 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass. She led the effort to protect and restore Florida’s unique natural environment.
Mary McLeod Bethune was born into a family of former slaves and rose to be a civil rights leader and a confidant to American presidents. She is the founder of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona.
“Theater is an incredible way to educate people, especially when portraying real, historical people,” says Marsh. “They come alive and one can feel as if they’ve met them in person. It’s magical and thoroughly a joy.”
“It’s one thing to read the story of Zora Neale Hurston collecting work songs,” says Moukouanga, “but to hear her singing a line song as she struts onto the stage does more than any letters on a page could ever do.”
Tickets for “Female Florida: Historic Women in Their Own Words” were available at www.myfloridahistory.org and at the Rossetter House Museum and Gardens.