UF black alumni commemorate 50th anniversary of W. George Allen, UF's first black graduate

Virgil Hawkins led the fight to integrate UF.
Virgil Hawkins led the fight to integrate UF.
Published Oct. 4, 2012


It's been 43 years since freshman Gwyn Francis first stepped foot on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, but the memories of her years there remain fresh.

Most outstanding is "Black Thursday" — April 15, 1971.

That's when Francis — by then a junior studying accounting — and dozens of other black students were arrested after occupying then-President Stephen O'Connell's office to demand the university increase black student enrollment and hire more black faculty.

When O'Connell refused to budge, Francis and about 100 students deepened their resolve by dropping out.

The matter quickly rippled throughout Florida, making headlines and the evening news.

Francis said she knew that her arrest was worth the scorn of her parents if it did something to change the culture of a school where the band played the minstrel show song Dixie at football games.

"We really did not feel that we were connected to the campus," said Francis, who now lives in St. Petersburg. "We wanted somewhere we could get together and congregate."

Francis will share that story and her other experiences as a Gator in the 1970s at this year's Black Alumni Weekend, sponsored by the University of Florida Association of Black Alumni.

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Organizers say 200 or more alumni are expected to attend the three-day event, Oct. 12-14, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the first black student, W. George Allen, to graduate from the university.

The weekend's agenda includes social activities, public programs and a golf outing.

The significance of this year's gathering cannot be overemphasized, said event committee chairman and Tampa resident Samuel Wright Sr.

"When you say you're celebrating 50 years, that's a milestone," said Wright, student ombudsman for the University of South Florida. "It wasn't that long ago that UF was off-limits (to blacks)."

Wright, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the university in 1974 and 1975, respectively, said the campus experience of many younger alumni and current students is light years apart from what those who attended in the years during and right after the civil rights movement.

"It's important to know what happened so that we don't revisit those days again," he said.

For older alumni like Sherrina Ford, "those days" in the mid- to late-1970s when she was a student were "a challenge."

To combat a less-than-welcoming environment, black students built their own support network on and off campus and pushed each other to excel in class, said Ford, a church comptroller who lives in Tampa.

"Whatever was going on, we knew who to go to and they would help," she said. "You had to make sure you studied. You weren't there to party."

Ultimately, there were more good times than bad.

"Those were the best years of my life," Ford said.

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Rocky Cusseaux, an entertainer who graduated in 2005, said it's by attending events like Black Alumni Weekend in the years after graduation that he has come to fully appreciate the university's wide availability of resources and openness to black students, things that he took for granted while enrolled.

"You get so caught up in being a student and participating in student organizations, you can't fully appreciate it — until you become an alum yourself," he said.

Cusseaux, a Tampa resident and the association's outreach vice president, said he's encouraging younger alumni like himself to go to Gainesville for this year's reunion to network and, more important, get a history lesson that wasn't taught in class.

"That generation is still here," he said. "I can actually meet these people and thank them for what they did."

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Following the protest, Francis returned to school the next term and graduated in 1973. Her arrest record and that of her fellow protesters was expunged.

Their actions, however, were not in vain. Instead, it led to the founding of the Institute of Black Culture, which has since served as an important cultural and social center for the university's black community.

A retired director of financial aid director for the University of South Florida, Francis said today she's a proud Gator who encourages black students to consider attending her alma mater.

Looking back, Francis said there are no regrets.

"If I had to do it all again, I wouldn't do it differently," she said.

Kenya Woodard can be reached at