FSU Panama City students curate exhibit for Panama City Publishing Co. Museum

Jan Waddy

Florida State University Panama City students are presenting a new exhibit, Lillian West and the “New Woman of the 1920s, at the Panama City Publishing Co. Museum from April 5 through April 30.

“It is just a pleasure to have this partnership with FSU PC,” said Nancy Hudson, museum committee chairperson. “The project had started out focusing on Lillian West in the 1928 election, but the students realized there was so much more to West and her influence through writing and newspapers. The students were able to paint a whole picture of how women’s roles changed completely in the 1920s.”

Cliff Munson talks to Florida State University Panama City
students at the Panama City Publishing Co. Museum as part of a
public history course taught by Interdisciplinary Social Science Professor Robert Cvornyek.

Curated by students in FSU PC’s Interdisciplinary Social Science program, the exhibit focuses on the societal impact of women’s voting rights and Prohibition, with the influence of St. Andrews businesswoman Lillian West at the center. Students Evan Fleming and Zackary Qualls will present a special program on their findings, including what information didn’t make it into the exhibit, at 5:30 p.m. April 7 during opening week.

“We really wanted to prove Lillian had an influence and was able to exercise her influence, which we could see when we saw the election demographics,” said Qualls, who will graduate in Fall 2022 with a concentration in history and political science. “I really wanted to see the interworking of the Democratic National Convention leading up to the election. It’s interesting to see political affiliations at the time.”

“Miss Lillian,” the first woman registered to vote in St. Andrews, built the Panama City Publishing Co. building with husband George Mortimer West in 1920. After her husband died in 1926, she continued to run the business, which was home to Panama City’s first newspapers: the Panama City Pilot, St. Andrews Bay News and Lynn Haven Free Press.

“Women looked up to Lillian and relied on her giving fair information through the newspaper,” Hudson said. “When the 1928 election came up, Herbert Hoover and Al Smith were running for election. Lillian gave equal time to both candidates in the paper. She supported Smith, even though she disagreed with his stance on Prohibition. Bay County was only one of a few counties in Florida that went for Al Smith, a Democrat. The majority chose Republican Herbert Hoover, which is proof of her influence.”

Students utilized primary sources, including editorials West had written in the newspaper. Cliff Munson, who worked for West as a teenager around 1940, also visited to the museum to talk with the students.

“We really got into it and could see how she embodied the ‘new woman of the ‘20s. We were able to pull examples, how she was allowing free speech and allowing others to articulate their ideas,” said Qualls, a Vernon native. “Public history can be so much more intimate. It was really rewarding digging into a historical figure in this area.”

The project stemmed from a public history course taught by FSU PC Interdisciplinary Social Science professor Robert Cvornyek, Ph.D.

“Public history always has an element of applied history, going out into the community. A lot of times there is a disconnect about what is written about someone and what the public understands about a person. This exhibit closes that gap,” said Cvornyek, who explained West was interested in progressing the idea of “clean government” in the Post-World War 1 era and saw Smith as beneficial to the area’s progression. “Lillian West’s heart really was in the development of Panama City.”

The exhibit will be viewable during regular museum hours: 1-5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.