A graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law is working toward preserving an often-unnoticed piece of the university’s history by petitioning for an on-campus monument.
Harley Herman, an attorney in Plant City, has spent the last 30 years advocating for his good friend and colleague Virgil Hawkins, an African American who was denied admission to UF in 1949 because of his race. He wants a monument of Hawkins placed on UF’s main campus in his honor.
About a year ago, UF students and Herman, who serves as the executive director of the Virgil Hawkins Historical Society, first asked the university to erect the monument.
“I practiced in the same town as him and we had cases where we had clients on either side of the case and that’s how I got to know him,” Herman said. “Because of that, I also got to know the tragedy of him not being able to practice law until he was almost 80 years of age.”
When Hawkins was denied admission to law school in 1949 at the age of 41, he took his case to the Supreme Court.
Florida’s Board of Control followed by adopting entrance requirements that allowed other black students to go to law school. Still, the board made it impossible for Hawkins to enroll by implementing harsh restrictions, including his age and previous education.
In 1976, the Florida Supreme Court waived Hawkins’ requirement to take the Florida Bar exam, and he finally opened his own practice in Leesburg. He was 70.
His career was short lived, as he resigned from the Florida Bar in 1985 after being accused of misappropriating funds. He died in 1988 at the age of 81 “in disgrace,” as Herman puts it.
In 1989, shortly after Hawkins’ death, Herman was able to fight UF to name a law clinic in the college after Hawkins, but since then, the university has not publicly acknowledged the history of its integration.
Herman first got the idea of building a monument on campus from UF students.
“When the students got together and contacted me and told me there was an integration statue at Florida State University and that they thought there should be a statue on the main campus, I thought it was an excellent idea and told them I would help them with it,” Herman said.
Ashley Dunbar, a UF law student and member of the Black Law Students Association, has worked to honor Hawkins by creating an online petition.
“He’s been a prominent member of the law school community,” Dunbar said. “We model everything after his commitments to black law students.”
Dunbar educated people about Virgil Hawkins and encouraged them to sign the petition, which currently has 30 signatures.
The monument would not be of Hawkins alone, but would include him passing the diploma he never received to the first black students who were admitted into the college. Another student would be holding up a diploma in the air to be passed on to the next generation of students.
“His legacy has lived on in us,” Dunbar said. “He sacrificed his education so that black law students could have their own education. It’s kind of parallel to what the class before me did.”
The 2015 College of Law class met with UF admissions and petitioned to have more black students enrolled. The meeting resulted in 20 black students enrolled in the class of 2016 — 10 more than the previous year. In the class of 2017, 30 students were enrolled.
“It was a big deal,” Dunbar said. “It meant a lot for us to grow. It was important to him, so now it’s important to all of us.”
To Dunbar, the monument would symbolize the importance of black representation on UF’s campus.
“People look at black law students as if we don’t need to be here,” Dunbar said. “Having someone who fought this hard for us means something. He deserves to be recognized.”
When students and Herman proposed the monument to the university, President W. Kent Fuchs did not think it was a good idea, according to Herman.
Though President Fuchs does not approve of adding another monument to the campus, he is willing to consider offering a scholarship fund, UF spokesman Steve Orlando told WUFT News.
“In his meetings with Harley Herman, President Fuchs shared his personal and the university’s support of Mr. Herman’s stated desire to establish a scholarship for UF students in Virgil Hawkins’ name,” Orlando said. “He believes that a scholarship to support students would be the most tangible way to further recognize Mr. Hawkins’ role at UF.”
But a scholarship is not what Herman seeks.
“A scholarship is a hidden honor, but a monument is a very visible acceptance that this is not only an important part of their history, but that the university embraces it,” Herman said.
Yet, Herman is still confident that someday the monument will be built.
“For now, it is a part of history that people don’t even know happened,” he said.