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Selma Daniels: a pioneer of Black education in Labelle

Selma Daniels opened the first school for Black children in Labelle
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Selma Daniels: a pioneer of Black education in Labelle
Posted at 8:48 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 08:48:52-05

LABELLE, Fla. — Selma Daniels was a pioneer in Black education in Labelle. She was a trailblazer and a matriarch with a heart of gold.

Selma Daniels was born around 1898 in Alabama and moved to Labelle with her husband in 1930. In a letter she wrote, she described Labelle at that time as a "small place with growing pines, oaks, and palmettos."

"Schools were segregated. I grew up during that time," Daniels' former student, Henry Gresham, said.

Gresham is now 62 years old. He said at the time Daniels moved to Labelle, black children in the area had no access to education, other than going "60 miles round trip" to a school in Clewiston. As more kids moved to the area, Daniels wrote in her letter that she started having classes out of her home, and then "Lady Luck began smiling on us." The idea for Daniels Elementary was born.

"I mean, here's a woman coming into Jim Crow South, opening a school for black people. Hell, you didn't do that in those days, but she did it!" Gresham said.''

The school is right on the corner of what's now called Selma Daniels Avenue, and Manatee Avenue. Daniels' letter said she convinced the School Board to get her a two-room building so she could teach more kids. The principal of the white school at the time told her it should be named "Daniels Elementary." Daniels wrote in her letter, "This is an honor I will cherish all the days of my life."

Fox 4 was there as another one of Daniels' students, Dorothy Johnson, walked up to the doors of Daniels Elementary for the first time in 64 years. Johnson is now 78 years old. Daniels Elementary is where she got her start in education.

"She is our hero. There’s not many of us left here, but she is our hero," Johnson said when describing Daniels.

Fox 4's Lisa Greenberg called Labelle City Hall to see if they would come out and unlock the doors to the school so Johnson could look inside. Code enforcement came out and cut the chain down. The school is completely abandoned, and in desperate need of more than a little TLC, but for Johnson, it still brought back so many memories.

"We had a stage. Ms. Daniels had a stage where we did little plays," Johnson recalled. "And I just remember her sitting behind her desk with her long, red fingernails. If you disrespected her, when she pinched you? Oh, she pinched us, honey!"

Other than those long, red fingernails, Daniels is remembered for being an example.

"The best thing about it was being taught by someone that looked like you," Gresham said. "For me, personally, I think it made me a better human being. Hell, when I think about it now, I smile."

"Every one of us that went to school up under her, we are successful in life. She did that," Johnson said.

Inside the four walls of Daniels Elementary are the memories of children who say otherwise, they would've been forgotten.

"It wouldn’t be no us. There wouldn’t be no us," Johnson said.

"What kind of legacy do you think Selma Daniels left behind?" Fox 4's Lisa Greenberg asked Gresham.

"The legacy for me is to be vigilant in your pursuits, which she was in her pursuit in the Daniels School. And to always give back when you can. She did that without any earthly rewards," Gresham said.

"She came here as an angel, and she left here as an angel,” Johnson said.

Daniels inspired so many people, even people who never knew her. A Professor at Florida Southwestern State College, who introduced Fox 4 to the story of Selma Daniels, is starting a scholarship in her name. Brandon Jett teaches African American History. When he moved to Labelle in 2019, he said he started digging into the roots of the area, read a bit about Selma Daniels, and started asking questions. After learning about her impact, he came up with the idea for the Selma Daniels Education Scholarship.

"It will offer roughly $4,000 every year to a student pursuing their Bachelor's in Elementary Education at FSW Hendry-Glades campus. And the goal is to get Labelle and Hendry County residents who are interested in becoming educators their degree. And hopefully they will stick around in Hendry County and continue on the legacy of Selma Daniels to educate and uplift the future generations, that will hopefully make their home here and Hendry County and kind of continue this cycle," Jett said.

The FSW Foundation wants to raise $50,000 over the next five years. If you want to contribute to the Selma Daniels Education Scholarship, you can contact Kyle Hartman at 239-477-3551.