Betty Stewart-Fullwood was among the 100-plus Black students who left the University of Florida after the administration’s response to their demands for better treatment in 1971.
“It was the principle of the matter,” Stewart-Fullwood recalled Tuesday during a virtual panel discussion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the campus protests commonly known as Black Thursday. “I needed to walk out, even though I came back.”
Three times on Thursday, April 15, 1971, groups of Black Student Union members entered Tigert Hall in an attempt to speak with then-UF President Stephen C. O’Connell. The BSU wanted, among other things, UF to enroll and hire Black students and faculty, create a minority affairs department, and “the fair and equal treatment of our Black brothers and sisters” on staff at the university.
According to UF Black Affairs, the size and vigor of the student body descending on Tigert Hall increased with each visit. The students refused to leave during their third visit and staged a peaceful sit-in. In response, O’Connell had over 60 students arrested for trespassing.
The mass arrests only led to increased campus protests. The Florida Alligator’s reporting from the time stated the student sit-in grew to 1,500 participants – and that they were gassed by police.
After weeks of continued marches and meetings, over 100 Black students withdrew from the university to demonstrate their disapproval of the administration’s actions.
Stewart-Fullwood re-enrolled the next semester after UF began to recognize the Black students’ requests, including the creation of the Institute for Black Culture in fall 1971. The Gainesville native went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree from the university, and then serve as a senior lecturer and program director in the UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Janice Hobdy was another Black student on campus at the time, but explained during the panel discussion why she did not withdraw from the university.
“A friend of my mother called me that night and she said, ‘Whose purpose is it serving for you to walk out,’” Hobdy recalled. “So I pursued my education with Florida, through all of the changes and all of the difficulties. And I struggled. And I stayed there. And I’m glad I did.”
Another panelist, Jeraldine Williams, attended UF from 1963 to 1967. Though the first Black student had enrolled at the university’s law school in 1958, Williams’ incoming undergraduate class was only the second to include Black students. She was one of 14 that year.
“We had to prove to ourselves that we could step up to the plate and perform,” she said. “And then we had to prove to the greater world that we could do it.”
Williams described her time at UF as lonely, saying “I might have seen another Black on campus, in four years, maybe twice.” She recalled an “interesting observation” by UF leadership that no more than half of her Black peers were expected to still be there after the first trimester.
“Not one of us of the first 14, not one, sent a child back to the University of Florida,” she said. “It was rough. Emotionally, it was draining. It was tiring.”
Listen below: University of Florida alumni Joseph McCloud recalls his participation in the Black Thursday protests during an interview with Andre Everette in 2010. McCloud describes the Black Student Union’s efforts to engage the administration, staging a sit-in and being arrested with peers. (Audio courtesy of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program Digital Collection)
Lydia Washington, who attended UF between 2002 and 2006, particularly credited the path blazed by Black women students before her for inspiring her to work in higher education.
“If those students didn’t walk away, we wouldn’t be here today,” Washington, the director of student activities and involvement at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said of those who withdrew from UF after Black Thursday.
As an administrator, Washington said students of color are still battling the same inequalities on predominantly white campuses 50 years later.
“I definitely know there’s different generations and different asks, but I think the similarity is that Black students are still requesting more resources or some type of acknowledgment that they’re here at these white institutions,” she said.
UF Black Affairs and the university’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program co-sponsored the panel discussion. It was hosted by Alana Gomez, a fourth-year English and History double major who recently completed her honors history thesis on Black Thursday.
“I just became overwhelmed and amazed by the history of Black Thursday,” Gomez said. “So many things exist because of that one day, such as the Institute of Black Culture we see today.”
She noted, however, the lack of a physical remembrance on campus dedicated to the historic event.
“There’s no plaque, there’s nothing at all,” Gomez said, adding that her thesis focuses in part on “how UF doesn’t talk about it ever, and how important of a day it is.”
Gomez said she will spend this summer creating a Black Thursday exhibit for the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville, which will be available to the public in the fall.
Paul Ortiz, a UF history professor who directs the oral history program, said it’s necessary for the university and community at large to reconcile the past in order to progress in the future.
“My frustration here, frankly, is that there’s still too many people at UF who think Black history is an extracurricular activity, when in fact it’s global history,” Ortiz said.
He added that “once we situate” Black Thursday as integral to UF’s history – “for good and for bad – as something we can learn from, then that will be a step forward. I haven’t seen it yet.”
More commemorative events are planned for Thursday, including a march from the Plaza of the Americas on campus to Tigert Hall and lighting ceremony in Turlington Plaza.
The UF African American Studies Program in conjunction with the campus NAACP chapter and the UF Chapter of Sistuhs will also host a virtual commemoration Thursday.