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UF students say O'Connell Center shouldn't be named after 'racist' ex-president

University of Florida students want to change the name of the Stephen O'Connell arena. [Google Earth]
University of Florida students want to change the name of the Stephen O'Connell arena. [Google Earth]
Published Feb. 8, 2018

A group of University of Florida students want to rename the Stephen O'Connell Center.

Also known as the "O'Dome," the 10,000-seat multipurpose arena is used for graduation, concerts and Gators' sporting events and named after the university's sixth president, Stephen O'Connell.

UF's Challenge Party, a student government political party, started a campaign and petition to rename the center because of how they say O'Connell treated black UF students during his tenure.

"This person was someone who, if he had his way, would have black students not even exist at this university," Shayli Patel, vice presidential candidate for the Challenge Party, told WCJB-Ch. 16.

The party posted a video explaining their reasoning on Facebook on Tuesday. They also cited a 2003 history book, African Americans at the University of Florida, written by Betty J. Stewart-Dowdell and Kevin M. McCarthy.

The video featured the story of Virgil Hawkins, a black man who was denied entry to UF's College of Law in 1949. Hawkins and 85 other black students were denied admission to the university from 1948 and 1956, according to documents.

Hawkins petitioned the Florida Supreme Court but was denied — and O'Connell, a justice at the time, concurred with the decision.

O'Connell was UF's president from 1967 to 1973 — a time of great civil and campus unrest due to desegregation.

While UF was desegregated in 1958, according to the university's online history, by 1971 there were only 343 black students on campus compared to the white student body of 20,000. That's about 0.2 percent of the student population that year.

Students protest protested outside Tigert Hall on April 15, 1971 and tried to meet with O'Connell. About 50 of them marched into his office with a petition. They were asked to leave and left without incident.

Then two other larger groups came to the office, according to UF's historical account, and O'Connell refused to listen to their demands. Protesters refused to leave, and 66 students were arrested what came to be known as "Black Thursday."

The incidents that day caused 123 black students and two black faculty to leave the university, according to the account.

The Challenge Party's petition had gathered nearly 200 signatures by Thursday afternoon.

"Sign our petition so we can put an end to the glorification and immortalization of this racist and hate-filled man, and stop upholding our University's history of racism and discrimination," the petition read.

Janae Moodie, the Challenge party's student government presidential candidate, told the Independent Florida Alligator that if the center is renamed, then students should decide what the new name would be.

"I know that students haven't only spoken to Challenge Party about this concern," she said. "We're handing the power to the students to speak."


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