The recent controversy over University of Florida President Kent Fuchs’ decision to end the “Gator Bait” chant at UF athletic events due to “horrific historic racist imagery” raised a number of questions about the origins and history of the phrase in Florida and at UF. Carl Van Ness, the university’s official historian, has addressed some of those questions for our readers.
Q: What is the “racist imagery” associated with the phrase?
A: In the early 20th century, African-American children and adults were often depicted as the victims of alligator attacks and were referred to as alligator bait. There is a collection of Florida postcards in the Library of Florida History in Smathers Library with examples of this. The one that appears here is mild compared to some of the others. If the postcard’s image disturbs you, consider also that the people who bought and mailed them thought them humorous. What’s more, the images of alligators and Black Americans are a small subset of a much larger racist genre. In addition to the postcards, there were a variety of equally horrific souvenirs that could be purchased at Florida tourist spots. Racist images also appeared on citrus cartons leaving the state. Florida was not alone, of course, nor was the problem confined to the South. Racist imagery was reinforced through Hollywood films of the era, most famously in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was viewed by millions nationwide in 1915.
Q: What was the impact of racist postcards and other memorabilia?
A: The intent and the result was to dehumanize and terrorize Black Americans. Once they were reduced to a less than human caricature, it was easier to justify lynching and wholesale murder. The massacres at Rosewood and Ocoee in Florida and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1920s were just a few of the many crimes of violence inflicted on defenseless populations in the South. There is an entire museum at Ferris State University in Michigan devoted to racist memorabilia.
The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia has as its slogan: Using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.
Q: What is the history of the phrase at the University of Florida?
A: There were no references to Gator Bait in any of the cheers or songs from the university’s earliest years at the start of the 20th century, which overlaps with the period when many of the postcards and other racist souvenirs were produced. A newsletter entitled “Gator Bait” was briefly published by the UF Athletic Association in the 1950s. A popular fanzine with the same name has been published since 1980. In a June 19 interview with the Gainesville Sun, the fanzine’s founder, David Stirt, said he was inspired by taunts of Gator Bait yelled at the Miami Hurricanes sideline at a game in 1978. Lawrence Wright’s exclamation “If you ain’t a Gator, you must be Gator bait” after UF won the 1996 football championship is now part of the Gator Nation vocabulary. The specific proscribed song was added to the band’s repertoire in 1998.
Q: Is there any connection between the racist history of the phrase and its use at the University of Florida?
A: I have searched for and found no such connection.
Q: Many fans of Gator athletics protested the decision to discontinue the tradition, saying that there is nothing racist about the chant. By your account, they’re likely correct. What’s your response?
A: I understand and appreciate that perspective. As a historian, though, I study the changes that have occurred and, more often than not, the changes have been for the better. Many years ago at UF, there was another controversial tradition at Gator football games. At the end of the band’s pre-game show, several students dressed in Confederate uniforms fired a cannon, whereupon the band marched off the field playing “Dixie” and students holding large cards created an enormous image of the Confederate flag in the stadium’s student section. This tradition went uncontested until the late 1960s, when the first Black marching band members raised their voices against playing a song that symbolized hundreds of years of racial oppression. A hot debate about “Dixie” ensued, but band director Richard Bowles did the right thing and removed it from the band’s playlist. Letters from irate alumni poured in to the university in response, but the decision stuck.
Playing “Dixie” and chanting “Gator Bait” are not as dissimilar as you might think. In the 1960s, supporters of “Dixie” argued that the song, itself, was not hateful and, given time, the song would eventually lose its racist associations. That view was rather naïve given the song’s history as the marching tune for the Confederate army and as an anthem for modern white supremacists. In the case of Gator Bait, the associations are not as widely known as they were with “Dixie.” In fact, it is only in recent years that the previous meaning of the term was brought to our attention. But, once you see how that phrase was used in early 20th century Florida, it becomes impossible to disassociate it from the current usage. Gator sports events should be a joyous time for everyone, and that will not be the case if a tradition, be it “Dixie” or “Gator Bait,” conjures up dark and sinister images from the past.