Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
To celebrate the online publication of the Florida section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Life, Southern & Jewish is running a series of features on interesting Florida Jews. I’m calling this series “The Friends We Made Along the Way.” This is the second installment.
Tallahassee is a place I’ve really come to appreciate; I already knew some good people from there, and I was lucky enough to visit Tallahassee twice last year, both times grateful for the great hospitality the Jewish community there showed me. So I’m delighted to get to share with you a glimpse into the life of one of Tallahassee’s Jewish gems: Ruby Pearl Diamond.
That’s right: Ruby. Pearl. Diamond. Her parents, Julius and Henrietta (Williams) Diamond, were dedicated enough to the gemstone theme that they snuck in Pearl as a middle name. And the name made sense in light of the family’s wealth: Robert WIlliams (Henrietta’s father and Ruby’s grandfather) had moved from Jasper to Tallahassee around the end of the Civil War and owned a dry goods store and three cotton plantations. Julius Diamond was also an early Tallahassee merchant who owned an insurance business, several downtown buildings, and farmland.
Julius and Henrietta had a son, Sydney, in 1883, followed by Ruby in 1886. Sydney became a prominent attorney. He was well regarded in Tallahassee and across the state, but also developed a reputation for collecting risqué literature and jazz records. Neither Sydney nor Ruby ever married, though she was engaged on two occasions. According to newspaper accounts, both fiancés died before they could marry her.
Ruby attended Florida State College (later Florida State College for Women and then Florida State University), graduating with a chemistry degree in 1906. Despite her education, she once remarked that she “wasn’t taught to do a blessed thing on earth but smile,” but her father bequeathed her the family business and properties upon his death in 1914. She soon sold the store but retained the downtown properties for several decades, and managed them well. She sold the family home and moved into the Floridian Hotel, where she lived until 1978—more than 50 years. After the Floridian closed, she relocated to a downtown Hilton Hotel, where she resided until her death in 1982.
Over her 95-year life, Ruby Diamond developed a reputation as a shrewd businessperson and generous philanthropist. She contributed to early childhood education programs, a nursing home, and the Salvation Army, among other charities. She was also a major benefactor for Florida State University, donating several properties to the university in the 1970s and 1980s, and the campus’s main concert hall is named in her honor. Ruby’s philanthropic and social activities endeared her to a number of elite Floridians, as well, and her 90th birthday party attracted Governor Reuben Askew, Florida Attorney General Robert Shevin, and U.S. Senator Richard Stone, among others.
Histories of Jewish Tallahassee recall Ruby Pearl Diamond as a link between the city’s early Jewish merchant families and its later development as a government and educational hub. Ruby, who employed a caretaker and a driver (both Black) until her death, has been referred to as Tallahassee’s version of Miss Daisy. There’s some merit to the comparison, but a more apt analogy would be to Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro, North Carolina. They both exemplify the progressive upper-class club woman of the early 20th century.
Like Ruby Diamond, Weil received a college education, never married, and became a well known philanthropist, all while living in her home town for most of her long life. Weil seems to have been more liberal (and less eccentric) than Ruby Diamond, however, as well as more prominent in regional and national organizations. While Ruby represents a type—her presence as a social and civic force in her community reflects the legacy of the early Jewish merchant class in small southern cities—she was also one-of-a-kind, just like Tallahassee.