Feb 10, 2009

By Jessica Newman

February is Black History Month, and if you haven’t noticed, UF is ending its yearlong celebration of 50 years of integration. Over the course of the last year, the university has commemorated its achievements of breaking down racial barriers in a variety of ways to celebrate how far we’ve come since 1958.

But last month student senator Brandon White, member of the Black Student Union, gave a chilling speech on the senate floor citing instances of racism within Student Government even today, saying he was considered “a black man first and a qualified applicant second.” In 2009, 50 years after the integration of UF, such statements should beg the question, how far have we really come in matters of race?

In honor of Black History Month and to further examine the questions raised by Sen. White, below is a chronological history of important moments experienced by blacks at UF since WWII.

Prior to 1958, a state law in Florida banned black attendance at public universities in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. Between 1945 and 1958, 85 black students applied for admission to all levels of UF, and all were rejected.

Among them was Virgil Hawkins, famous Florida civil rights activist. Hawkins fought his rejection until his case made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled he had “all the scholastic, moral and other qualifications” of a successful applicant. Regardless of this understanding, the Supreme Court refused to integrate state public universities. Chief Justice at the time was none other than Stephen C. O’Connell, a self-proclaimed segregationist, who would later go on to become the president of UF, when he had a change of heart and declared himself an integrationist, according to an article published in The Gainesville Sun in 1970. For nine years Hawkins fought the Florida Board of Control (the equivalent of today’s Florida Board of Governors) and the statewide ban on the integration of public universities. Then finally in 1958, he struck a deal with the state, pledging to drop his aspirations to attend UF if professional and graduate schools were desegregated.

In September of 1958, the first black student enrolled in UF’s Law School, George Starke. Starke required police protection for the first few weeks of classes, but overall the step toward integration went rather peacefully. Unfortunately, the strain of being the only black student at the university and a feeling of isolation convinced Starke to leave UF after only three trimesters.

Starke returned to UF to speak at the 50th anniversary of integration last September. In an interview with the Independent Florida Alligator he said, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. I would come to the University of Florida, but I would not have been the first one to do so.”

In 1962, UF admitted the first black undergraduates. There were seven students, and among them was Stephan P. Mickle, now a federal judge. Mickle was the first black person to earn an undergraduate degree from UF, the first black to establish a law practice in Gainesville and the first black judge in Alachua County.
Not long after undergraduate integration, W. George Allen became the first black student to graduate from UF.
All seemed well, at least according to university statements on minority affairs, which reported integration was going along smoothly and black students were happy at UF. No race problems here.

But such idealism unraveled in 1971 with what came to be known as “Black Thursday” under the administration of President O’Connell. On this day, 66 students staged a peaceful sit-in in O’Connell’s office to demand the creation of a Black Cultural Center.

In 1971, 13 years after the official integration of UF, there were only 343 Black students out of more than 20,000 total students. There were few social outlets geared specifically toward black students, and latent segregation was still apparent. Naturally, many black students felt isolated and estranged from campus life as a whole.

Law enforcement officers arrested all 66 students, and a semi-violent protest broke out near Tigert Hall when a thrown brick broke a window. Students demanded O’Connell grant the protesters amnesty. But O’Connell and his administration refused to waive the legal and academic penalties. Because of this, nearly a third of the black student population, 123 in total, left UF as well as a number of black faculty members. They left in protest of what they saw as a terrible slight by the university and administration. They felt the protesters’ concerns were legitimate, and O’Connell’s refusal to clear charges signified the university turning its back on the black population.

A year later, the Institute of Black Culture was established, which many say was a result of “Black Thursday.” The first black Greek fraternity was born at UF, and the first black student was elected student body president. Once again, it seemed the times were changing.

However, in 1979 there was only one black student for every 21 white students at UF, and the feeling of isolation continued. Around this time, President Robert Marston met with eight blacks from the university, students and staff, to discuss the problems of minorities. As a result of the meeting, Marston appointed a subcommittee of the President’s Council of Advisors and charged it with identifying such problems and proposing solutions.

The committee interviewed UF’s black students and identified a list of seven main problems, which were published in a report stored in the University Archives. Among the grievances were: a bitter reminiscence regarding the manner in which blacks were/are treated by UF; the negative attitude or insensitiveness on the part of the non-black faculty, staff and students, toward black students, staff and faculty; the small number of black faculty and staff; the lack of sufficient social activities, which would have appeal primarily to black students; and the inadequacy of and/or insufficient use of the Institute of Black Culture.

In addition to these problems, the subcommittee found that the Affirmative Action Office, which is charged with recruiting bright, young blacks, was too small and too overworked to be effective. They also found this office to be more committed to the university’s administration than the students. The subcommittee found that most black students felt UF wasn’t doing enough to truly integrate the campus, let alone taking the issue seriously.
But the most troubling part of the report dealt with black staff members of UF. In interviews with these people, the subcommittee found:

Employees of this classification pose a situation of sensitiveness unlike any others due, in large part, to the fact that historically and by tradition blacks have been the “mop and broom pushers” and still are. It is a sad commentary, indeed, the fact that blacks comprise 50 percent of the work force, yet hold less than 5 percent of the middle management positions and not one of the upper management positions.

Among the list of complaints were allegations of harassment from white employers and little to no opportunity to rise in the ranks to management.

Even after 20 years of integration and claims from the university that race relations were not an issue on campus, the majority of blacks at UF still felt slighted. True equality had not yet reached Gainesville.

A few years later in the early 1980s, UF studied the situation of blacks on campus under pressure from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights to increase minority enrollment. The report found the dropout rate for blacks at UF was 31 percent, less than the national average of 40 percent. After studying 237 “special admit” students (i.e., Affirmative Action and financial aid recipients), researchers found that 63 had left even though they were still in good academic standing.

“It is evident that academic failure, as defined by the university… was not the main reason for their [students in good standing] leaving,” the report stated. “Most of their dissatisfaction centered around what they perceived as unfair grading practices, inadequate academic advisement and prejudiced instructors.”
The report also cited “personal problems” as a reason for leaving, most of which were based on the racial makeup of the university.

Individuals cited the lack of black administrators, faculty, staff and other black students as a deciding factor in their leaving. Also frequently mentioned was the lack of an adequate social outlet for blacks on campus
and in the city.

Sound familiar? This was the same argument given by George Starke, by the “Black Thursday” protesters and in the report a few years earlier.

While UF espoused the image of a progressive, integrated university, the feelings of black students, faculty and staff tell a different story. They tell a story of dissatisfaction and latent discrimination.

In the following years, the Office on Minority Affairs would issue reports in a similar vein, all saying similar things. As recently as 2000, the associate dean of the law school, Kenneth Nunn, resigned from his deanship in protest of the lack of diversity in the law school faculty (there were only two full-time black faculty members out of 54 full-time positions).

Even more recently, Sen. Brandon White of the Gator Party denounced his affiliation with the party, citing racism as one of his key motivations. He said he had been privy to conversations between white SG officials where racial slurs and derogatory terms were used in relation to black students. He also said he was encouraged to do what was best for his community, meaning the black community, as opposed to doing simply what’s best. He was considered “a black man first and a qualified applicant second,” and the party saw him as a ticket to clench the black vote.

Sen. White’s statement is relevant at present as UF attempts to study its racial past. While the legal barriers were overcome more than 40 years ago with Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act, and while the most apparent forms of racism have been eradicated, there are still significant problems facing blacks at UF. There are still changes that need to be made and ideological battles that must be waged in order to reach equality between students, faculty and staff of all races.

At the end of the report on minority affairs from 1979, the subcommittee appointed by President Marston proposed some logical solutions to curing the discontent of black students:

The feeling of acceptance and helpfulness must come from those faculty and staff members who are in daily contact with students… Meaningful relationships must be bilateral… Then, and only then, will UF not be required to expend energy and other resources dealing with the matter of color, and get on with the task of educating the citizens of Florida.

Members of the current administration and leaders on campus could stand to take the same advice. With feelings of change and progress sweeping the nation, now is the perfect time to re-evaluate and transform race relations as they exist now on campus. Certainly we’ve come a long way since 1958 when the first black student enrolled in the university. But there are still large strides to be made in the name of equality.

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5 Comments

  1. Ann O'Connell says:

    Stephen C. O’Connell was not Chief Justice until 1967. He did not have a vote on the Board of Control and Virgil Hawkins case. The Chief Justice at the time was Glen Terrell. Please in future get your facts before you write an article.

  2. The time has come to rebut misleading comments made by the historically white in-crowd which has manufactured a history of Florida and progressive race relations which does not comport with known facts. Stephen C. O’Connell appears to have been elected Chief Justice in June 1967 and he relinquished that title in September 1967 when he was named to the presidency of the University of Florida.
    If the original comment is inaccurate, it hardly is worthy of mention in light of the above fact. But the other misstatement by Ms. O’Connell is more serious.

    Justice O’Connell did have a vote on State of Florida ex rel Hawkins, 93 So.2d 354 (Fla S. Ct. 1957). He concurred with the plurality opinion by Justice Roberts. So did Justice Terrell. Justice Terrell did have a concurring opinion which Justice O’Connell did not sign. But Justice O’Connell’s concurrence makes clear that he joined others in defying the U.S. Supreme Court which had ordered Mr. Hawkins admitted forthwith. Before Justice O’Connell joined the Florida Supreme Court, that high court already was wreaking havoc with the admission of Mr. Hawkins to the University of Florida School of Law. But Justice O’Connell joined the majority which denied relief “without prejudice” until such time as my mentor the late Hon. Robert Carter and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund Counsel could show that Mr. Hawkins’ admission would not “cause mischief” at the law school. Like it or not, it is comparatively easy to show that Justice/President O’Connell was on the wrong side of history of race relations in Florida at all relevant times, along with many of his fellow prominent Florida Blue Key members. Incidentally in that 1957 proceeding, there were two dissenting justices who seemed to recognize that Florida could not continue to defy the U.S. Supreme Court. The year 1957 is especially significant because that was the year that the Florida State Legislature approved a Doctrine of Interposition, to assert that this State had the right to defy the U.S. Supreme Court, not only with regard to Brown v. Board, but also with regard to other recent decisions affecting labor, and other issues unrelated to race.

  3. CORRECTION–The correct title for the case is State of Florida ex rel Virgil Hawkins v. Board of Control

  4. Ann O'Connell says:

    Mr Hillel, I did not make a misstatement when I said that Stephen C O’Connell was elected Chief Justice in 1967. Also, it was worthy of mention because of the emphasis “none other than” and because it was factually in error. Another thing, he didn’t “appears to have been” he was.

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