One Man's Fight

By Kimberly Anne Lopez
Alligator Staff Writer

In 1949, one man began a nine-year struggle to integrate UF.

He never won for himself, but he claimed a victory for all black students.

Virgil Hawkins applied for admission to UF's College of Law more than 50 years ago and was rejected because Florida law prohibited integrated education at the time.

Hawkins brought suit against the Board of Control, the body that oversaw Florida's higher education institutions, in what would become a nine-year battle reaching the U.S. Supreme Court three times. The Florida Supreme Court heard the case four times.

Hawkins fought for the equality of blacks in Florida at a time when they gained the rights to ride in the front of the bus in other states. He and many other black activists will be honored - and remembered - for their efforts during Black History Month, which kicks off today.

"He is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights struggle," said Don Peters, director for the Virgil Hawkins Civil Clinics at UF.

The battle begins

Hawkins' fight for admission to UF's College of Law garnered opposition from faculty, staff and students. The highest judicial power in the state even ignored his constitutional rights set by precedent.

"The admission of students of the Negro race to UF, as well as to other institutions of higher learning established for white students only, presents grave and serious problems affecting the welfare of all students and the institutions themselves," stated the Board of Control during the hearings.

"We fear that the influx of so many Negroes would multiply the chance of disorder, fights, riots and attendant trouble," testified Board of Control Chairman Fred Kent.

Students, faculty and staff presented different views of Hawkins' case. Some outright refused to see a "Negro" in an established white university.

In a 1955 spot survey conducted by the Alligator, one student stated that "the standards of the law schools would have to be lowered" while another protested to withdraw from the law school if Hawkins was admitted.

However, the survey also showed 75 percent of the 64 law students surveyed thought the school would suffer "no harmful effects" if Hawkins was admitted.

Hawkins continued to argue the Brown v. Board of Education decision made it unconstitutional to deny admission to any student based on race.

Despite the desegregation of other law institutions, such as Harvard, UF remained segregated on the basis that Florida public opinion did not agree with that of the Supreme Court.

"The real difficulty is grounded in the fact that the Brown decision has contradicted the sincere beliefs of a majority of Florida citizens as to their basic rights and freedom. They therefore dissent," stated the Supreme Court in an opinion conclusion.

In an unselfish move, Hawkins dropped his case in 1958 against the state in return for a court-ordered desegregation of UF's graduate and professional schools.

Hawkins' deal came after the Florida Legislature agreed to fund a law school at Florida A&M University - an institution established for blacks - to avoid admitting blacks to UF. Hawkins received an offer to attend UF until the FAMU program was established.

Hawkins declined the offer because it would have diminished the chances of other blacks seeking admission to UF.

"It wasn't a selfish effort," said Desta Meghoo-Peddie, Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations assistant and acting director. "He opened the door for African Americans to study law at the University of Florida."

But perhaps Hawkins did win the struggle.

He did indeed pave the way for future black students at UF, providing the basis for integration for the State University System.

George Starke was admitted as UF's first black student in 1958, but never graduated because he "failed to complete the course of instruction," wrote College of Law Dean Frank Maloney in 1966.

December 1962 brought the enrollment of Willie G. Allen, who became UF's first black graduate. Allen was accepted to the Florida Bar in 1963.

Instead of attending UF, Hawkins graduated from New England College of Law in Boston and practiced as an Okahumpka lawyer before his death in 1988.

Remembering the man

It has been half a century, and his name remains known among the university community.

Hawkins is remembered for the peaceful way he integrated UF and served those who were less fortunate; during his years of law practice Hawkins was known to provide discounted or free legal services to those who could not otherwise afford it.

To continue the legacy of Hawkins, UF's Levin College of Law dedicated a civil clinic to Hawkins' name to continue his legacy of unselfish deeds and service.

The dedications continued in May 2001 when UF Provost David Colburn presented UF's first posthumous degree in memory of Hawkins.

"There is, of course, a lesson for each of us in Virgil Hawkins's story," Colburn said in his commencement address. "If our society is to become innately stronger, if we are to ensure the longevity of our democracy, and if our nation is to stand as an example to the world, we must acknowledge injustice where it exists and take steps to correct it."

The decision to present the degree was because Hawkins represented values, such as the commitment to right injustice, fundamental to society and "fundamentally critical to the desegregation of the University of Florida," Colburn said in an e-mail.

Launched by law student Rhonda Chung-de Cambre, UF's Faculty Senate unanimously approved awarding the degree, which was accepted by the Hawkins family.

Meghoo-Peddie said the impact made by Hawkins is a story that continuously should be told to law students.

"When minority students, not just black students, are concerned and feel stressed and wonder what it's all about, I will bring them back to the Hawkins' story," Meghoo-Peddie said. "Because of the struggle of Hawkins, we have a duty to really uphold this profession [of law]. Not just when we take up the bar but also as students and make sure the name Virgil Hawkins lives on, that the legacy lives on.".

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This profile of Virgil Hawkins opened a month-long, Black History Month series chronicling the events and people that have shaped Gainesville's black community.

Because it is a posthumous profile, research was conducted using old UF documents and speaking to community members.

Webmaster: Kimberly Anne Lopez

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