UF approves historic plaque recognizing early black students

Students have been fighting for greater recognition of UF’s black population for decades. Now the university is working on installing a plate recognizing his early black students.

While the plaque would honor the history of black college students, it’s not exactly what some fought for.

Harley Herman, executive director of the Virgil Hawkins Historical Society, has spent the past 30 years fighting for a monument for his friend and colleague Virgil Hawkins, a black man who was denied admission to UF in 1949 because of his race.

Herman has sent letters to UF president Kent Fuchs and the board since 2011 seeking approval for his integration monument project – he sent his latest letter March 27.

The letters are usually motivated by events showing why the monument is important, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the death of a notable. Black elders.

Herman’s proposal led the board to reconsider how best to honor UF’s first black students, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando wrote in an email. Herman’s letters led to a conversation between Fuchs and Orlando where the two discussed the idea of ​​honoring UF’s first black students with a plaque, he wrote.

A plate near Bryan Hall already honors Hawkins’ efforts and briefly refers to Starke Jr. and W. George Allen, the first black law school graduate. The new plaque will be in the yard near Bryan Hall, Orlando said. This is because Bryan Hall was previously home to the College of Law, where UF’s first black student took classes, and because the courtyard is a high traffic area near the center of the campus, so it would be easily visible. .

“You put it there because you want people to see it and learn the historical significance of what happened there,” Orlando said.

While that’s not what Herman asked for, he thinks the plaque is a step in the right direction.

Herman plans to keep an eye on his progress to make sure the proposal doesn’t die. He said that the first black students of UF shouldn’t have to die before seeing the plaque that honors them.

“It’s not going to go away because history can’t go away,” Herman said. “The history of the University of Florida and its integration is not going to go away. It’s just a matter of when the university will adopt it. The longer it takes, the more there is a negative message associated with school.

The board plans to place the plaque in the courtyard near Bryan Hall, where the current one is located. The location was once home to the College of Law, where UF’s first black student, George Starke Jr., attended the class, said Orlando. Due to the pressure of being the only black student at UF, Starke Jr. took of after three semesters working on Wall Street.

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the University History Advisory Council, which strives to publicize the history, achievements and contributions of UF to higher education, met on May 25 and endorsed the plaque, Orlando wrote. As the board is still considering when the marker could be created, there is no guarantee that the plaque will be installed this fall.

The plaque, which could take two to three months, will cost around $ 1,700, Orlando wrote.

David Canton, director of African American studies, said that while a monument would be worth it, he understands why UF can’t fund one. If the university erects a monument in honor of its original black students, he said, it may assume people will ask for more monuments honoring other students.

He said UF could also argue it’s not worth the cost, while others would argue it is. Either way, he said, the university should be the only one paying for it.

“I think that’s what it boils down to, what do you value,” Canton said. “You put your money into what you value. “

Vincent Adejumo, a senior lecturer in African American studies, said he saw professors and students in his department and students who advocated for a Hawkins monument during his last 2 years at UF. He said the absence of a monument affects the reputation of the university’s UF by failing to prioritize diversity within the institution.

“It plays into the general narrative that the University of Florida is racist,” Adejumo said. “And you see it in the registration numbers.”

This year, Black UF admissions were around 5% of admissions, and there were 47 fewer Black students admitted compared to 2020. The numbers have remained below 10% since 2008.

Adejumo said the low enrollment rate of blacks, coupled with the lack of representation on campus and buildings named after racist people, contributes to the perception of an unwelcoming environment.

He said the conversation was not just about a monument, but fair resources in general. The UF is far from fair when it comes to the participation of black faculty and students, he said.

Herman also suggested supplementing the plaque with oral histories on a website to serve as a lasting tribute.

“I hope that when the plaque is dedicated, these alumni will be invited to attend and be publicly recognized by a large group of students, faculty and administrators,” Herman wrote.

Amanda Edwards, section vice president of the UF Association of Black Alumni-Gainesville, provided an email statement from the section’s board members, all of whom support the plaque.

However, he wants to help black UF students in other ways.

“While we enthusiastically support visual representation on campus, ABA-GNV’s goal remains to support the university’s efforts to improve enrollment, experiences and outcomes for black students at the University of Florida. », Wrote the members of the board of directors.

Beyond the plaques, the UF has not installed any statue-type monuments in honor of black students, unlike other public institutions.

In 2004, Florida State University unveiled a monument of integration honoring its first black students, and the University of Miami has approved a similar monument for 2022 and announced a virtual exhibition and exposure.

While UF lags behind other public schools, with the plaque, the university is taking the first steps to honor its integration.

With the plate now approved, UF is now checking to see how soon the marker could be created.

Contact Joseph Oprison at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joprison.

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