Desegregation pioneer saluted

Published Sept. 15, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

Although Virgil Hawkins never got a chance to attend the University of Florida, he was honored Monday for opening the gates to allow blacks to attend all state public universities.

Hawkins' nine-year legal battle, including three trips through the U.S. Supreme Court, was remembered with the unveiling of a plaque outside Bryan Hall, site of the UF law school until 1969.

Hawkins, who died in 1988 at age 81, never was able to attend the University of Florida. As part of an agreement to desegregate the state universities, Hawkins agreed to withdraw his application to attend the UF Law School.

"It cost him an opportunity he would never see again," said Harley Herman, a UF law graduate and founder of the Virgil Hawkins Foundation.

Herman met Hawkins when both practiced law in Leesburg, and described the civil rights crusader as "youthful idealism trapped in the body of a 70-year-old man."

"He would want you to know there may be a time that to make society better, it may take a sacrifice on your part," Herman said.

Hawkins' niece, Harriet Livingston, said her uncle "was a trailblazer for equality in the halls of higher education."

George Starke became the first black admitted to the University of Florida on Sept. 15, 1958, 40 years ago today.

Starke discussed being shadowed by two state troopers while attending class, receiving angry phone calls and letters and being told to be careful.

Starke left the university before graduating from law school, but W. George Allen was admitted and became the first black to graduate from Florida's law school.

"No one chose me to come here. I was a native Floridian, and I felt it was my birthright to come here," Allen said.

Last spring, 57 blacks and 138 non-blacks graduated from UF's law school. Of the school's 3,503 bachelor's degrees awarded in May, 169 were to blacks.

Allen also endured threats and name-calling as he recruited other blacks to attend the university and integrated local businesses.

Delphine Jackson, mother of football stars Willie and Terry Jackson, was another early student.

"My memories were bittersweet. It was not an easy road to travel," she said.

Hawkins, who was later a teacher at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, first applied to the law school in 1949. His application was rejected without explanation.

Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that the nation's public schools should be integrated, the Florida Supreme Court still refused to force the school to admit Hawkins.

Eventually, the court relented and allowed the state's schools to be integrated with the caveat that Hawkins not be admitted to the UF Law School.

Hawkins, although disappointed in the ruling, agreed. He moved to Boston, where he obtained a law degree from the New England College of Law.

Hawkins returned to Florida, but his efforts to practice law were thwarted by the Florida Bar, which refused to allow him to take the bar exam, since his degree was from an unaccredited university.

He never gave up his dream of practicing law and in 1976, the state Supreme Court ruled that Hawkins should be admitted to the Bar. He opened his practice at age 70 in Leesburg in Lake County.