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The Battle to Integrate the University of Florida

Before 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.

In 1949 Virgil Hawkins was public relations director of Bethune-Cookman College at Daytona Beach when he applied to the University of Florida’s law school.  Five other blacks applied with Hawkins to UF graduate and law programs, but all were refused admission. They sued in the Florida Supreme Court for an order requiring UF to admit them.  The state of Florida offered to send them out of state. Also, the Board of Control voted to establish a segregated law school at FAMU.  Hawkins would be admitted to the law school, but would have to leave after the FAMU law school opened.  Eventually, the other black students withdrew their names from the lawsuit, but Hawkins case reached the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled he had “all the scholastic, moral and other qualifications” of a successful applicant, but they nevertheless refused to integrate state public universities.”

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Hawkins again appealed for admission, but was refused.  The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Florida to immediately enroll him in 1957, but the Florida Supreme Court concluded that federal law could be superseded by state law in some instances (the now-discredited “interposition” doctrine).  After appearing before the Florida Supreme Court three times and the U.S. Supreme Court twice, Hawkins entered into a consent decree (agreed judgment)  and agreed to withdraw his lawsuit in exchange for the integration of U.F.’s graduate and professional schools.  Mr. Hawkins eventually received his J.D. 27 years after first applying to the University of Florida.

On Sept. 15, 1958, an Air Force veteran named George H. Starke registered for classes at the College of Law and became the university’s first African American student.  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.

W. George Allen became the law school’s first black graduate in 1962.  Also in 1962, UF admitted 7 black students including Stephan P. Mickle who became the university’s first black graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

The Establishment of the African American Studies Program

After the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., African Americans, including college students, increased participation in massive civil unrest to demand that America make good on its promises of democracy and equality. Part of the change demanded was greater access to higher education. Many Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) responded by granting symbolic access to Black students. Once on campus, students again protested for substantial inclusion in curriculum and increased presence of Black students, staff, and faculty. Responding to an increasing nation-wide student activism, President Robert Smith, announced the creation of a Black Studies Department at San Francisco State University in September 1968. This is recognized as the first such department in the nation. Dr. Nathan Hare, a Sociology Professor, was named Acting Chair. In November 1968, students went on strike against the administration and demanded, among other things, the development of Black Studies courses in a Black Studies Department that will grant a Bachelor’s Degree in Black Studies; that the Black Studies Department, an increase in the admissions of black students, the creation of faculty position for black faculty.  Similar student strikes took place at many other institutions. Thus, it is clear that the development of the African American Studies Program at the University of Florida was part of a worldwide push for enfranchisement by Africans throughout the Diaspora and a national development of student activism for equality and equity in higher education.

Key figures in the establishment of the African American Studies Program at UF included administrators:  Dr. Manning J. Dauer, Chairman, Social Sciences Division; Dr. Harry H. Sisler, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences; and Dr. Harold Stahmer, Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences.  The faculty who assisted in the earliest development of the program included: Dr. Hunt Davis, Jr., (History Professor); Dr. Seldon Henry, (History), Dr. Steve Conroy, (Social Sciences), Dr. James Morrison (Political Science); and Dr. Augustus M. Burns (Social Sciences, History).  The students who played a role in the program’s development included: Samuel Taylor (the President of Black Student Union in 1970 and the First Black Student Government President in 1972), David Horne (Doctoral candidate in History), Emerson Thompson (undergraduate student), and Larry Jordan (undergraduate student).

The program was established in 1969 and enrolled its first students during the fall 1970 semester.  In 1971, the program awarded the first certificate in African American Studies, but during that year UF only  had 3 African American faculty members out of a total 2,600 faculty members and only 387 black students, including “foreign” black students. In 2006, the program began offering an African American Studies minor and will offer an African American Studies major beginning in the fall 2013 semester.

After many years of efforts, the university now has a black student enrollment of less than ten percent and a black faculty presence of less than five percent.  Although many things have been accomplished in the program and concerning the increased enrollment/employment of African American students, faculty, and staff, many challenges remain.

Directors of the African American Studies Program, 1970 – Present

  • Dr. Ronald C. Foreman, 1970-2000, Ph.D. in Mass Communications, The University of Illinois
  • Dr. Darryl M. Scott, 2000-2003 Ph.D. in History, Stanford University
  • Dr. Marilyn M. Thomas-Houston, 2003-2004 Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology,  New York University
  • Dr. Terry Mills, 2004-2006, Ph.D. in Sociology, The University of Southern California
  • Dr. Faye Harrison, 2006- 2010, Ph.D. in Anthropology, Stanford University
  • Dr. Stephanie Evans, 2010- 2011, Ph.D. in African American Studies, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Dr. Sharon Austin, 2011- 2019, Ph.D. in Political Science, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • Dr. David Canton, 2020-Present Ph.D. in History, Temple University