Betty Stewart-Fullwood was a student assistant at the University of Florida when protests for equality sprung up on campus. She yearned to be part of the change.
Now, 50 years later, the Matheson History Museum is opening an exhibit that spotlights the civil rights movement in Gainesville and these Black students’ stories.
The exhibit “We’re Tired of Asking: Black Thursday and Civil Rights at the University of Florida” can be viewed on the Matheson’s website or at the Matheson, located at 513 E. University Ave, on Feb. 2. Admission is free and the museum opens Wednesday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
On April 15, 1971, protesters gathered outside Tigert Hall for an event that later became known as Black Thursday, demanding better treatment and equal rights for Black students. This was a pivotal moment for UF and the Gainesville community, which is why UF graduate Alana Gomez felt compelled to curate the exhibit, “We’re Tired of Asking: Black Thursday and Civil Rights at the University of Florida,” to be displayed at the Matheson Museum.
The students presented then President Stephen O’Connell with a list of suggestions, which eventually became demands, to improve racial equality at UF. They tried to present the list to O’Connell three times, and he ignored them. They then gained entrance to his office and the building’s corridor where they held a peaceful protest and sit-in, hoping he would review their list of demands.
After being ignored by O’Connell, Stewart-Fullwood and 122 more Black students withdrew from UF. Stewart-Fullwood said there were fewer than 200 Black students at UF at the time.
“It was time for us Black students to put our signature where our mouth was,” she said. “…I think the university depended on the fact that we probably would not withdraw because we had been accepted to this prestigious university.”
Stewart-Fullwood said Black Thursday took place at a time when students felt they could ignite change through protesting.
“When events like Black Thursday are not highlighted or addressed on campus, I think it silences Black history and shows Black students that [UF] doesn’t care about their goals and accomplishments,” Gomez said. “…I think it is so important to acknowledge it and celebrate it as a student achievement, as a Black achievement and as a minority achievement.”
The exhibit’s title was inspired by Stewart-Fullwood and fellow Black students, who said they were tired of asking O’Connell to review their demands for equality.
“The [demands] were pretty much talking points at the beginning for President O’Connell to figure out where the university was going as far as Black faculty and students, but the meetings that were requested never happened,” she said. “So Black students at that time just got tired of asking and not getting any response, not even a meeting or even looking it over.”
When Gomez, 22, took a class on topics surrounding the history of race and disability, she learned more about the hidden Black history both at UF and in Gainesville, which inspired her to write her undergraduate thesis on the movement. She also realized that many of her classmates at UF did not know about Black Thursday.She said she knew that just showing people a thesis on it wasn’t enough to spread awareness, so she used her research to create the exhibit.
“I wanted to find a different way that could be more engaging to the public than just having a thesis on it,” Gomez said. “The museum director, Kaitlyn [Hof-Mahoney], and I decided that an exhibit would be the perfect way to do it.”
The in-person and online exhibit include details about Black Thursday and pictures of these historical protests, and Gomez set the exhibit within the context of the civil rights movement. She said she spoke with community members who lived during that time and also explored the ongoing civil rights movement in Gainesville and the country, such as the protests for the Black Lives Matter movement that reignited in 2020.
Gomez said the exhibit gives light to minority movements, including BLM, helping people realize these are the problems Black people and other minorities have had to overcome.
“I want people to make a connection with today’s issues and the issues from the past and empathize with these communities,” she said.
Black Thursday is important because it marks a period when Black students felt that their concerns were not being heard, and that motivated them to demand equality, according to UF history professor Steven Noll.
“Black Thursday showed that Black people in Gainesville had a voice, even if it was just through the student body,” Gomez said.
The Matheson History Museum tries to create a space for everyone and doesn’t shy away from covering any subject in Alachua County history, executive director Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney said.
“One of the things that we really want to do is make sure that everybody in the Gainesville community can see themselves in some of our exhibits,” she said. “We have really been trying to bring in a wide range of stories and voices within our exhibits and programs to help break down the barriers.”
Black Thursday is an exhibit that will highlight underrepresented communities, Gomez said. It is not only for UF students to see but also for the Gainesville community to see as it is a part of its history and ties into ongoing issues for which equality is still being fought.
“I would like this exhibit to have the impact on the first level, that students can use their voice to make a change,” Gomez said. “Secondly, that minorities can use their voice to make a change, and I really hope it overall just shows and makes people aware of Black history and create a visual of what was happening at that time, and why change was necessary, and how helpful that change has been today and highlighting why we are still fighting for change.”
There are now about 3,384 Black students at UF, 5.85% of the total student population, according to UF 2020 enrollment data. In 1971, 200 Black students were admitted.
“I think the racial atmosphere in Gainesville and at UF has changed for the better, and there is no blatant toleration of any racial disparities,” Stewart-Fullwood said. “…Now it is not just Black people seeing it, but now non-Black people are also speaking out and don’t allow it to occur.”
Stewart-Fullwood believes that this exhibit will highlight history that doesn’t need to be forgotten.
“We need to know our history,” she said. “We need to know our heritage. We need to hold on to things that may not seem important but they are important.”
From a historical perspective, Noll believes this exhibit is important for people in Gainesville to know about the city during the civil rights movement and inequalities that have been downplayed for too long.
“When we talk about the civil rights movement, everybody thinks about places like Alabama and Mississippi, but yet, significant battles were fought in Gainesville,” Noll said. “I think it is important for us to recognize the people that stood up, much like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and participated in the struggle for inequality.”
Hof-Mahoney believes that it is important to highlight all history to keep the public educated on subjects they may have never heard about, such as Black Thursday, and build empathy.
“I think that sharing these histories that have been excluded from museums and the historical narrative, that is something that can also build empathy and understanding with the rest of the community,” Hof-Mahoney said. “This may not be someone’s story but it can be really valuable for people to learn more about a history that is not necessarily yours.”
Stewart-Fullwood hopes that people will learn about what her and fellow Black students went through during this time and the impact it had on the community.
“I hope that people in the Gainesville community that visit the exhibit will learn that Black students were first of all, Black, and even though they were students, they were seen by media or by others on campus, as just Black,” Stewart-Fullwood said. “People knew what was going on at UF because the same thing was happening within the Gainesville community. So it wasn’t that these Black students were different, they had been selected because they were given the opportunity that some of the native Gainesville residents may not have been given, but they were still a part of the community.