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She was One in 63 Million

Women’s History Month Edition

 Duke Hall, Orlando, Florida

Mary (Kerr) Fernandez - Duke of little old 19th century Orlando was selected from 63 million citizens of the United States to serve as the one and only female judge at the Horticultural Exhibit of Chicago’s 1892-93 World’s Fair. Totally unaware she was even being considered for the position when the Fair’s Governing Board of Lady Managers invited her to take a seat among the male judges, Mary's appointment, it was reported, gave her “the greatest satisfaction.”

Born 1844 in North Carolina, Mary Kerr, daughter of a Scottish immigrant, came to Orange County in 1875 from Iowa. She was at that time the widow of Henry Fernandez, a Mississippi Attorney, and the mother of Hallie G. Fernandez. Mary at first taught school at Fort Reid (now Sanford), but soon after relocated another 22 miles south to Orlando, where she served as both a schoolteacher and the school principal.

1872 Orlando Schoolhouse

Mary Kerr Fernandez was one of only a few frontierswomen featured by Clarence Howard in his 1915 book, Early Settlers of Orange County. Howard told of Mary’s family moving to Iowa in 1857, and of her attending Elmira Female College in New York State, and of during the Civil War she spent much of her time visiting and caring for Confederate prisoners.

April Trailblazers:

19th Century Central Florida Poets

After relocating to Orlando, Mary (Kerr) Fernandez married James Keith Duke, formerly of Louisville, Kentucky, on 9 June 1880 at Orlando. Two sons were born to Mary and James but only one, Buford Kerr Duke, survived childhood.

In addition to teaching, Mary also served as superintendent of the Department of Plants and Flowers for the South Florida Fair Association, the position which most likely led to her being appointed as the only female judge of the Horticultural Exhibits at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893.

Described in a lengthy obituary “as being interested in art, a student of literature, and a fine writer, she was also eminently practical in business affairs.

The Women's Building, Chicago's World's Fair

The Chicago World's Fair Lady Managers are featured in

The Ladies were Daughters Too by Richard Lee Cronin (left)

Bertha Honore Palmer, President of The Lady Managers.

(For details about The Ladies were Daughters Too click book cover above)

Mary’s health began declining around 1911, and in 1913, she was transported to John Hopkins Hospital at Baltimore, where she died, July 30, 1913. “Her general optimism and charm of personality,” wrote Orlando historian C. E. Howard of the deceased Orange County Innkeeper and schoolteacher, “made her a host of friends.”

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