LABELLE — For the Fordson/Sunset Park community in LaBelle, Selma Daniels was the founder, counselor, teacher and guiding spirit of education in the only local school available for black students. The editorial team of the Cougar, the first edition of the Daniels Elementary School yearbook, was dedicated to Selma Daniels. In their estimation, “Mrs. Selma Daniels is to Daniels Elementary what the late Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is the Bethune-Cookman College.” Further research and documentation of the brilliant and inspirational life and legacy of Daniels is needed, since the exact date of this yearbook dedication and other details are not known.
Born around the turn of the 20th century in Alabama, Selma Daniels eventually came to LaBelle with her husband, M.G. Daniels, in 1930. According to Daniels, at this time, the town of LaBelle consisted of a few hundred people, “a few places of business, court house, post office, two hotels, the Ford place, theater, two churches, and two schools.” However, there were no schools or churches for African Americans, and “only a handful of (Black) adults and no children within eight miles.”
Daniels and her husband settled into the what would later become the Fordson/Sunset Park community shortly after moving to LaBelle, and she began having classes in her home for the few children in the area. As Daniels recalled, “Lady Luck began smiling on us.” A sawmill was established in town and the Black population increased rather quickly, which also meant more Black children.
In response to this influx, the principal of the white school offered to pay Selma Daniels to teach if she could find some place to hold classes, besides her home. Her husband approached the county school board and asked them to provide a building. They agreed and “built a nice two-room building and added a porch, and two large toilets.”
Ms. Daniels worked tirelessly to help educate African American children in LaBelle and taught all subjects and all grades from first to sixth. After a couple of years, the superintendent asked her to name the school. While she was not sure what to choose as a name, he recommended, “Daniels Elementary.”
“This was an honor I will cherish all of the days of my life,” Daniels said.
Daniels Elementary remained the only school for Black children in LaBelle throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s. Dorothy Johnson, a lifelong LaBelle resident and former student of Selma Daniels, explained, “She taught us reading, writing and arithmetic … she was kind, but if you didn’t get it right, she would pinch you!” She added that Daniels was known for her bright red lipstick and matching, manicured fingernails. Many of her past students recalled the “Daniels pinch” and those sleek red fingernails.
Brutus Ned, who attended Daniels Elementary beginning in 1956, relayed a similar memory. He said, “Everybody loved her … She was nice, fair, but stern.” He laughed and nodded when Johnson asked him if he had ever received a pinch.
Daniels Elementary closed its doors in 1966. Some 12 years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schooling unconstitutional in 1954, LaBelle’s schools were integrated. Although Daniels left the school prior to the closing due to health issues, she remained active in school and community affairs.
In reflecting upon her death (another exact date that is yet unknown), Dorothy Johnson said, “We lost a hero.”
Despite her obvious importance to the community and to the education of so many, her contributions to the city largely faded from the history of LaBelle. The building still stands at the corner of Manatee Avenue and Withlacoochee Avenue, but little commemorates the significance of it to the history of the Fordson/Sunset Park community, and LaBelle more broadly.
At the request of Dorothy Johnson and others, the city commission named “Selma Daniels Avenue” in her honor. Yet, the real story behind who she was and what she did is largely held in the memory of the students whom she taught. Her impact on the Fordson/Sunset Park community was undeniable. As Dorothy Johnson explained, “She was the root that made us all sprout.”
This article was coauthored by Danika J. Fornear; also, information for this article came from conversations with Dorothy Johnson and Brutus Ned, as well as documents they had that were related to Selma Daniels and the school.
Brandon T. Jett is a professor of history at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers and a resident of LaBelle with his wife and daughter.