In the wake of nationwide racial unrest, the University of Florida banned its famed “Gator Bait” cheer on Thursday because of the term’s reported racist history, which includes printed images and unsubstantiated accounts of black babies being used as hunting lures.
“While I know of no evidence of racism associated with our ‘Gator Bait’ cheer at UF sporting events, there is horrific historic racist imagery associated with the phrase,” school president Kent Fuchs said in a letter to the UF community. “Accordingly, University Athletics and the Gator Band will discontinue the use of the cheer.”
Indeed, the history of the cheer appears to be harmless; the Gators credit its origin to a celebration of the football program’s first national title in 1996.
But the history of the term is anything but innocent. Stories from as far back as the 1880s mention American hunters using black babies to attract large reptiles. Other accounts from the time reference similar activities happening in Africa and Florida.
Franklin Hughes — who has researched the subject at Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia — said the source material of those stories is questionable. But he believes there’s enough evidence to suggest the practice happened occasionally.
“I don’t want to put a limit on the evil people do,” said Hughes, the multimedia specialist for the museum, located in Big Rapids, Mich.
Regardless, the phrase and imagery became a part of the Jim Crow era.
Postcards and prints of black children labeled “alligator bait” were sold in stores. So were knickknacks of black men being attacked by gators. And a pencil with a black child as its eraser and an alligator as its holder.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around,” Hughes said. “This was really that common where we would send that stuff on postcards to people.”
Historian Gary Mormino said images of black children being approached by alligators were commonly put on race cards — baseball card-like items that were included with products such as tobacco.
“I’ve seen scores of these,” said Mormino, a professor emeritus at USF St. Petersburg. “Never of a child being eaten, but it’s not far from that.”
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Decades later, Gators star defensive back Lawrence Wright gave the phrase a different meaning when he famously yelled, “If you ain’t a Gator, you must be Gator bait!” during a ceremony at Florida Field celebrating the 1996 national championship.
The Gator bait cheer became a fixture of football games, along with chomping arms and Mr. Two Bits. It’s also the name of a magazine and website that has covered the program for decades.
Wright told the Gainesville Sun on Thursday that he wants to discuss the decision with Fuchs directly.
“I’m not going for it,” Wright told the Sun. “I created something for us. It’s a college football thing. It’s not a racist thing. It’s about us, the Gator Nation. And I’m black.
“What about our history as the Gator Nation? We took a program from the top five to No. 1 in the country. I think I’ve done enough, put in the sweat and tears, to get to offer my opinion about something like this.”
Reaction online was mixed. A change.org petition racked up more than 2,000 signatures to keep the cheer in less than four hours Thursday afternoon.
Henry Coburn, a former mellophone player in the university’s Pride of the Sunshine Marching Band, said he was “appalled” when he learned about the phrase’s history Thursday.
“Most people that I know in the Gator band would stand on the side of progress, which is removing it,” said Coburn, a 2019 UF graduate. “We get so tired of playing that song in the stands — like we play it 30 times a game — so, you know, retiring that song, it probably won’t be too missed by people.”
Florida’s move comes as schools across the country rethink traditions with complicated, if not racist, histories amid the protests about systemic racism following the death of George Floyd while handcuffed in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis.
Some players from the University of Texas have objected to the school song, The Eyes of Texas, first performed in minstrel shows by white singers in blackface. On Thursday, the University of Georgia announced its band will stop playing Tara’s Theme from Gone With the Wind, a film that has come under renewed scrutiny because of its depiction of black characters. The band will instead play Georgia on My Mind.
Times staff writer Kyle Wood contributed to this report.