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African Americans at the University of Florida by Dr. Betty J. Stewart-Fullwood and Dr. Kevin McCarthy

The cover of a history book about African-Americans at UF

African Americans at the University of Florida, by Dr. Betty J. Stewart-Fullwood (formerly Stewart-Dowdell) and Dr. Kevin McCarthy, was one of three books commissioned by the University of Florida as it celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2003.  It joined a companion book on women at UF and a pictorial history. The books on women and African Americans partially filled historiographical vacuums as both subjects had been given scant attention in earlier works on the university’s past.  The principal narrative voice of African Americans at the University of Florida is Stewart-Fullwood’s. Stewart-Fullwood grew up in Gainesville and observed and, at times, took part in many of the events described in the book.  She was a participant in the demonstration known as Black Thursday on April 15, 1971, when over 50 protestors were arrested at a sit-in in the office of President Stephen C. O’Connell. Her continued association with the university now spans over fifty years, including many years as the advisor to the Black Student Union.

As the authors clearly demonstrate, Gainesville’s racial history and the university’s first years as an integrated institution are closely tied. After the Civil War, Gainesville was home to one of the state’s largest and most prosperous African American communities. Alachua County continued to send Black representatives to the state legislature until the Constitution of 1885 made it effectively impossible to do so. The same constitution also prevented local African American students from attending the university only blocks away from their homes and their high school.  When integration finally comes in 1958, it was no surprise that many of the earliest African Americans to enroll at UF had ties to the local community.

As it should, African-Americans at the University of Florida pays homage to the “firsts” in the student and faculty bodies. The list of names, though, is punctuated with the personal stories of a few who made the list. Also told is the saga of Virgil Hawkins, whose ten year battle to enter the College of Law removed the final legal barrier to integration. Yet, it was not Hawkins who made the list, but George Starke, whose admission could not have happened without Hawkins’ personal sacrifice. Finally, African-Americans at the University of Florida provides a glimpse at the evolving campus culture of the late 20th century and the dramatic impact made by the presence of Black students. Although limited to 124 pages, African-Americans at the University of Florida remains an essential source and continues to inspire further research.

About the Authors

Dr. Betty J. Stewart-Fullwood served as the director of the Student Enrichment Services Program at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her association with the University of Florida began as a student in 1970. As a student, she was active in the Black Student Union and was one of 123 Black students who withdrew from the University of Florida in protest of the university’s response to the events of Black Thursday. She returned, though, to earn her BA, MA and Ph.D.

Dr. Kevin McCarthy is emeritus professor of English and Florida Studies at the University of Florida. He is best known for his many books on Florida’s history and culture and is regarded as a master of the short historical narrative form. He is listed as a co-author on all three books published by the University of Florida for the 2003 sesquicentennial.

Book review written by Carl Van Ness, University Historian.

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