Betty Stewart-Fullwood reflects on life, legacy as Black student advocate at UF
As part of an ongoing series of events honoring Black History Month, Dr. Betty Stewart-Fullwood, a triple Gator and retired senior lecturer from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shared her experience of being a Black student at the university during the '70s. The event, titled "Back in Class: Exploring the Black experience at UF," took place on Wednesday and was moderated by Dr. Travis Smith, assistant professor in the College of Education.
During her time at UF, Dr. Stewart-Fullwood participated in protests for progress for Black students at the university, including Black Thursday, as well as the emergence of African-American sororities and fraternities.
Black Thursday was a sit-in organized by the Black Student Union in April 1971 expressing discontent with the university's hiring and acceptance policies, as they did not encourage Black student enrollment or Black faculty employment.
"The University of Florida was a mirror of what was going on around the nation. At that time, a lot of protest had to do with the Vietnam War, integration of higher ed institutions and just mistreatment of Blacks in general," Stewart-Fullwood said. "We had gone through the sixties and thought we had overcome, but then there were a lot of disparities that were happening still in the seventies."
The protestors had a petition of six demands, but Stephen O'Connell, who was president at the time, would not meet with the students. Three groups of students tried to meet with him. And after the third unsuccessful try, a group of students was arrested, prompting 123 Black students, including Stewart-Fullwood, to leave the university, she said.
But she came back. "It was just the principle of the matter. I needed to withdraw because I needed to show that I was standing for something. And I needed to come back because there were so many gains, I needed to come back and make sure those gains didn't get lost in the shuffle," she said.
Ultimately, the activism resulted in the establishment of UF’s Institute of Black Culture, a resource and home away from home for students that still exists today. UF hired more Black faculty and administrators. And in the late seventies, African-American sororities and fraternities came to UF.
Stewart-Fullwood is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. which has a mission to support the constructive development of its members and to public service with a primary focus on the Black community. Particularly in the early stages of UF's African-American sororities and fraternities on the University of Florida campus, Stewart-Fullwood made sure to maintain a more neutral face on campus so students of all backgrounds would feel comfortable approaching her as a counselor and a mentor.
Her advice for the next generation of advocates?
All hands on deck.