Activist to be celebrated in performance

The life of a woman who fought for Florida environmental issues and taught black children to read more than a 100 years ago will be celebrated at USF tonight.

The life of Mary Barr Munroe will be explored in storyteller and balladeer Judy Gail’s performance of “Mary Barr Munroe, a Woman of Spirit and Action.”

The performance is organized by the Campus Women’s Collective and funded by the Florida Humanities Council. The performance, which takes place at six today in Davis Hall 130 on the USF St. Petersburg campus, is free and open to the general public.

Throughout the performance Gail will impersonate Barr Munroe and deliver the performance in period costume and a Scottish accent. Gail said the performance and narration style help break down the barrier between performer and audience.

“I dress the way she dressed – turn-of-the-century Victorian clothes,” Gail said. “I tell her story first person – like someone telling you the story of their life.”

Gail said the imitative nature of the performance forged a spiritual closeness between Barr Munroe and herself.

“I forget that I’m Judy Gail – it’s like she creeps into me and I become her,” Gail said.

Although born in Scotland, Barr Munroe (1852 – 1922) lived most of her adult life in Florida, in an era before women had the right to vote; before it was acceptable for white women to interact with black people; and before roads and railroads brought food and other necessities to southern Florida.

Barr Munroe was an outspoken activist, an environmentalist before many realized the environment was under threat, a community leader and a spokesperson for women’s issues.

Barr Munroe founded the Southern Tropical Audubon Society in her efforts to protect egrets from poachers and the Royal Palm Park, which later became the Everglades National Park. She frequently caused a commotion in polite society when she would snatch egret feathers from ladies’ hats to raise the issue of their preservation. She was the founder and first librarian of the Coconut Grove Library where she controversially taught black children to read.

Diane McKinstry, faculty advisor for the Campus Women’s Collective, said the performance offered different perspectives on the history of Florida.

“It’s an opportunity to learn something about Florida history – a window into what Florida was like before it became comfortable,” McKinstry said.

Gail said the themes explored by her performance are as relevant today as they were in Barr Munroe’s time.

“She stood by the courage of her convictions. She spoke out. She was not afraid of what the reaction would be,” Gail said.

“She followed her heart – and that is universal. That is timeless.”

Contact Chris O’Donnell at