The University of Florida unveiled a new African American storytelling wall on the second floor of the Reitz Union Auditorium on Monday, paying tribute to the contributions and experiences of the university’s Black community.
The Black Experience Installation, a display of photographs and text that tells the stories of Black students, faculty, staff and alumni at UF over the decades, highlights the challenges, triumphs and contributions of UF’s black community and showcases the importance of continuing the enduring legacy set by its leaders.
The wall is divided into four attributes that relate to the Black experience at UF: determination, pride, strength and community.
The event included remarks from UF President Kent Fuchs, Provost Joe Glover, Assistant Vice President for Business Services Eddie Daniels and Attorney Jeraldine Williams, who was the first Black graduate of the College of Journalism and Communications in 1967.
“We are excited to finally unveil this installation to the UF community,” Daniels said. “The exhibit provides snapshots of important stories that are a part of the fabric of UF history.”
Prior to the integration of UF’s campus, Florida regularly denied admission to African American students. Between 1945 to 1958, nearly 100 Black students applied to UF and were rejected.
“Here at the University of Florida, I was among those who wanted to make a mark,” Williams said. “It’s very important for us to come, but when you are the first, you need to leave some footsteps.”
Williams’ legacy is tied with several diligent trailblazers who persisted and paved the way toward the institution’s full desegregation.
In 1949, Virgil Hawkins applied to UF’s College of Law and was denied based on his race. He, along with five other Black applicants who were denied admission, sued UF. Hawkins appeared before the Florida Supreme Court three times and the U.S. Supreme Court twice. His case was rejected each instance. Eventually, Hawkins agreed to withdraw his application in exchange for the integration of UF’s graduate and professional schools in 1958.
Hawkins’ determination and sacrifice opened the door for George H. Starke, an Air Force veteran who became the law school’s first African American student. Starke faced severe isolation as the only Black student on campus, and eventually withdrew from the institution after three semesters to take a job on Wall Street.
However, W. George Allen became UF’s first African American law graduate in 1962. A few years later, Stephan Mickle became the first Black student to receive a bachelor’s degree from UF in 1965 and the second to receive a law degree from UF in 1970.
As more Black students were admitted to the university, the call for programs and initiatives that improved the climate for Black students on campus became louder. That led to the creation of the Institute for Black Culture as a space for those students, establishing them as an integral part of the UF community.
More recently, UF built the National Pan-Hellenic Council Garden as a physical tribute to the Divine Nine and their organizational history on campus. And to honor UF’s integration pioneers, the university erected a marker in Emerson Courtyard.
Now, the African American Storytelling Wall joins UF’s collection of campus locations and monuments designed to celebrate Black members of the university’s community — from today and throughout history.
“The Black experience at the University of Florida is vibrant, rich, innovative and dynamic,” the wall states. “It is inclusive of perspectives from across the African diaspora, anchored in love, care, celebration, excellence and pride in Blackness.”