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Decolonizing the Curriculum, Episode 3: The changing landscape of K-12 and higher education in Florida

Normally crowded areas of the University of Florida campus like Turlington Plaza have been anything but this fall. UF announced it will be offering a similar number of in-person classes for the spring 2021 semester as it did in spring 2020. (Ashlyn Jones/WUFT News)
Normally crowded areas of the University of Florida campus like Turlington Plaza have been anything but this fall. UF announced it will be offering a similar number of in-person classes for the spring 2021 semester as it did in spring 2020. (Ashlyn Jones/WUFT News)

This is an abridged version of Episode 3 of the Broadcasting Hope podcast that has been edited for the web. The full podcast can be heard above.

Over 150 years of post Civil War history can be traced through what is today Lincoln Middle School in Alachua County. But let’s start at the beginning. 

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created to assist freedmen and their families during the post-civil war era called Reconstruction. 

Two years later, the bureau would help establish the first school for black students in Gainesville and Alachua County – Union Academy.

Local historian Alfred Awbrey said that during the 1870s the federal money dried up and Union academy was seeking additional funds to stay open.

The city passed a resolution to finance Union Academy on the requirement that they had to turn over the land which they sat on.

Decades later, with Union Academy’s building needing major improvements, the city went about raising funding to build new schools. In 1920, a bond issue was passed to build two new high schools, one for whites and one for blacks. 

The issue received some pushback from white voters, who felt their rights were being violated, but the principal at the time, A. Quinn Jones, says it passed anyway. 

In an interview with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, Jones said that in addition to the school board, the chairman of the trustee board played a huge part in the process.

“It was due to Major Thomas who was very liberal when it comes to education and liberal towards Blacks, not biased at all,” Jones said.

William Reuben Thomas, or Major Thomas, is also noted as being a major factor in drawing the University of Florida to Gainesville.

The school for black students would be finished in 1923, and it would be called Lincoln High School. 

Originally only for grades first through eleventh, Jones advocated for a 12th grade to allow students the opportunity to graduate with a degree that allowed them to continue on to universities and colleges.

In 1926, Lincoln High School became the second fully accredited African American high school in Florida and helped Jones recruit educators.

“[Presidents of Florida colleges] knew that Lincoln High School was accredited by the state. Those presidents that wanted to recommend teachers and as a consequence I got first choice,” Jones said.” 

This building would house Lincoln High School until the United States Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. The decision, which pushed for an end to segregation, created the option for school systems to maintain the practice of keeping schools separate for white students and black students as long as they were equal. 

Alachua County chose to build a new high school for black students rather than integrate, and in 1956 Lincoln High School’s final building was opened. 

In the years following, tensions arose between black and white residents over efforts to provide a learning environment for black students in Gainesville equal to that of the white students, but it would be an attempt to integrate black and white students that would bring protests from both sides. In November 1969, the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Florida ordered all county school boards to desegregate schools or close. 

The two former Lincoln High Schools are still around today. The original that opened in 1926 is preserved as the A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center. The one that was closed in 1970 is now Lincoln Middle School.

Integration of Higher Education and the University of Florida

In 1949, six black students sought to enroll at the University of Florida law school, but they were denied admission solely on the basis of race. One of the students, Virgil Hawkins, sued, and in 1956 UF was court-ordered to admit Hawkins to the law school. Only, he withdrew his application on the premise that the university would integrate its graduate and professional schools.

It would be two more years until UF admitted its first black student. His name is George Starke Jr. 

Starke, like Hawkins before him, was pursuing his dream of becoming a lawyer.

It had been four years since the Brown v. Board decision, which intensified white backlash and resistance in the South. In Gainesville, police officers were tasked to follow and protect Starke.

“I was under an extreme amount of pressure, because it was a gross embarrassment, not to finish,” Starke said.

Starke withdrew after three trimesters.

“And it took me about 20 years before I could even mention the University of Florida, or the law school,” he said.

Although Starke didn’t earn his degree, he did pave the way for other Black students to attend and graduate from the University of Florida.

Following in his footsteps, W. George Allen was the first Black student to earn a UF law degree in 1962.

“To be the first to graduate in the state of Florida as a person of color, opened the doors for all Black people to attend the school of their choice at the university, college-and university-level,” Allen said. 

“We had some success with getting some students into undergraduate school or really into secondary school because of Brown v.Board of Education in 1954, but no one had graduated from a previously white institution in the state of Florida.”

The same year Allen graduated, the university enrolled six Black undergraduate students. Among them was Stephan Mickle, who would become the first Black undergraduate student to graduate from UF three years later in 1965.

These are the names that are often remembered with the integration of UF: Virgil Hawkins, George Starke Jr., George Allen and Stephan Mickle. But there were trailblazing women, too, like Daphne Duvall, Kitty Oliver, Evelyn Moore and Hazel Land. 

All of these people played a role in the early integration of UF, despite a campus culture that did not support, represent or embrace Black culture. After nearly a decade of fighting for a seat at the table, students turned their focus toward demanding a better campus experience for Black students and faculty, too. 

Black Thursday

The Black student population at UF organized as the Black Student Union and formed a list of six demands to present to the administration that included increasing Black student enrollment, hiring full-time and tenure-track Black faculty and creating a Black cultural center. 

It would all come to a head on Thursday, April 15, 1971, during a sit-in protest and demonstration that is now remembered as Black Thursday. 

In a 2009 interview from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, former University of Florida student Joseph McCloud discusses an interaction in a time when racial tensions were high.

“When I was moving in, I had my roommate come in, you know, being a friendly guy that I am I turned around and said, “Hi, my name is Joe.” And I held up my hand to shake his hand. He looked at me and turned around and I never saw the guy again,” McCloud said.

In 1971, Black students were outnumbered 343 to 20,000 white. McCloud says that disparity in population contributed to the Black Student Union's push for their rights.

We got together and had meetings over a period of time and came up with a set of demands– one for the university to recruit more Black students, to open an institute of Black culture to recruit more black faculty,” McCloud said.

On April 15, 1971, students went to Tigert Hall to talk with then President Stephen C. O'Connell about these demands. Betty Stewart Fullwood, who was a student at the time, says they tried three times to have a conversation.

Quinn Francis, another student, says the administration wasn't having it.

“We had a sit-in and we sat in his office probably, maybe for about 45 minutes and he proceeded to have us arrested,” Francis said. “So the buses came and they took us all down to Alachua County jail.”

Over 60 students were arrested or suspended. 

They got out that same day. But the campus community wasn't satisfied and called for amnesty for those suspended and arrested. O'Connell refused, and his denial led over 100 Black students and supporters to withdraw from the university. 

Fullwood was one of them, but she came back after a semester or two and graduated. When she arrived, she noticed a shift had occurred. 

“That fall term was when we had four African American faculty and staff to be recruited to come on, and I'm sure there were more students that were admitted as well,” she said.

It has been 50 years since that fateful April 15.

But with nearly a year of racial unrest nationally, a lurking question is how far the university has come in improving the Black Student Experience.

Affirmative Action and the Aftermath

In the years following desegregation and the issues leading up to Black Thursday, changes began to take place at the University of Florida and across the state. Some of the Black Student Union’s six demands were acted upon immediately, like the creation of the Institute of Black Culture in 1971, which was dedicated in 1972. The University Senate also worked to increase the number of Black students and faculty on campus. 

The BSU students had also asked that 500 of the 2,800 incoming freshmen be Black, a demand that UF has yet to meet.

University of Florida professor of law Kenneth Nunn says the students' demands were not calling for a diversification of Florida.

“What they wanted was they wanted a base of community empowerment at the university – so they wanted an IBC,” Nunn said. “Then they wanted an African Studies department that would be staffed with African Americans. They weren’t looking for diversity so much as they were looking for community control.”

One federal strategy to increase Black enrollment, called affirmative action, was rolled out with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in an executive action signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. 

Affirmative action refers to a set of policies and practices within a government or organization that seeks to include particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which they are underrepresented, such as education and employment. 

“There were two kind of legal theories that justified affirmative action,” Nunn said. “One, was we are going to do it because what we are trying to accomplish is to make up for the previous exclusion of people into these spaces. So that’s what is none as remedial affirmative action.

In 1973, the University of Florida would develop its first affirmative action plan to address its race-based gap in enrollment. 

But then came the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke Supreme Court case.

“So the Supreme Court decides the Bakke case and they said that remediation – that is fixing a problem that was caused by white supremacy and Jim Crow laws in the United States – is not the reason why we are allowing excluded people into these institutions,” Nunn said. “The reason why we allow them in is because of diversity. That is the only legitimate reason that we can allow them in.” 

The case upheld affirmative action, but it weakened it as well. The decision gave states the power to decide whether or not to ban affirmative action. 

This came to a head in Florida in 2000.

In the 2000 State of the State Address, Florida Governor Jeb Bush laid out his One Florida initiative.

Bush’s plan ended race-based university admissions and replaced it with the Talented Twenty program, which grants automatic admission into one of Florida's public universities to students who graduate from high school in the top 20 percent of their class. While the plan was criticized by opponents as a political maneuver, Bush said One Florida would transcend affirmative action.

“This year more minority students will be admitted to our university system than last year, this year the agencies that report to me will do more business with minority-owned businesses than the previous year and we will not take one step back in the struggle against racism and discrimination,” he said.

A few years after the One Florida plan went into place, Dr. Bernard Machen took over as the 11th president of the University of Florida.

“We just assumed that because UF had become much more selective in its admission processes and since affirmative action was no longer possible we were going to see a drop in those pools,” Machen said.

But Machen says their assumptions were wrong. As they took a closer look at the admissions process, they found UF was attracting a diverse group of applicants and even admitting a diverse pool of students. 

“The drop off came from admission to enrollment,” he said. “We were not getting these students who had been admitted enrolled at the university.”

Machen says the university tried to figure out exactly why this was happening. 

“Then we went back into our admissions portfolio and took a look at what was happening and – no surprise to anyone – that economic factors were becoming so prevalent, and they were keeping students who met all the academic criteria to become students here from enrolling at the University of Florida,” he said.

So in 2006, Machen started the Florida Opportunity Scholars Program to address the issue. The program supports low-income undergraduate students who are first in their families to attend college. More than 5,100 students have received scholarships from the program in its existence.   

But while Hispanic enrollment has risen in the past two decades at the University of Florida, Black enrollment has declined or plateaued from a peak in 2007. According to 2021 data from the University of Florida, less than six percent of the total student population identifies as black compared to the state of Florida, which has a roughly 17 percent black population. 

UF students like Imani Jackson say that this disparity in student population plays out in the classroom. 

“I do observe certain spaces where I may be the only Black person, I may be the only person of color, I may be one of a few females, I may be the only female in certain contexts,” Jackson said.

Jackson participated in the Black Storytelling Project conducted by Dr. Yewande Addie, a doctoral student at UF focused on cultural communication. The project collected first-person narratives from Black students on the core aspects of their experiences at the University of Florida related to race, representation, inclusion and community. 

Karen Coker also shared her experiences for the project.  

“Doing this Ph.D. I knew that as a Black student I would need support,” Coker said.

“And where would that support come from? Where would that support look like? Who would be a part of my experience of support?” 

According to a 2022 university task force report, UF has seen a slight increase in new Black faculty hires as well as the number of full-time tenured or tenure-track Black faculty. But there is more to be done

In 2020, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced 15 goals that UF would pursue in creating a more equitable campus. Some goals focused on documenting UF’s relationship to race through efforts like establishing task forces and unveiling historical markers. 

In September of 2021, UF installed a historical marker on campus honoring four Black pioneers in the first decade of UF’s integration. Fuchs spoke at the ceremony.

“For the rest of us it really is important to know that history that this university did not always have students that were black, students of color, did not always have women and it wasn’t long ago,” Fuchs said.

Other parts of the plan eliminated the Gator Bait cheer at sporting events and pledged to organize a more diverse group of guest speakers on campus. 

Still, more parts of the plan promise an effort in recruiting, supporting and retaining students, faculty and employees of color.

Related coverage: 

Funding for this program was provided through a Broadcasting Hope Public Media grant from Florida Humanities with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of Florida Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ryan is a radio news manager for WUFT News. Reach him by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.