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Gator bait phrase, images were once used for Florida tourism

A University of Florida history professor explained more details of the phrase after the school banned its popular sports cheer Thursday.
In this Nov. 7, 2015, file photo, Albert and Alberta, the mascots for Florida, do the gator chomp before the first half of a game against Vanderbilt in Gainesville. The University of Florida is ending its 'gator bait' cheer at football games and other sports events because of its racial connotations.
In this Nov. 7, 2015, file photo, Albert and Alberta, the mascots for Florida, do the gator chomp before the first half of a game against Vanderbilt in Gainesville. The University of Florida is ending its 'gator bait' cheer at football games and other sports events because of its racial connotations. [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press ]
Published Jun. 19, 2020
Updated Jun. 19, 2020

Although the history of the phrase “gator bait” might not have been widely known among University of Florida students and alumni, it wasn’t a secret, either.

UF history professor Paul Ortiz has shown some of the postcards of black people — usually children — being pursued by Florida alligators in his classes to show the cruelty of the Jim Crow era.

“Students are really shocked,” Ortiz said. “They’re appalled. They’re very saddened. I’ve had students cry when I’ve shown them.

“I try to tell people in advance I’m not showing them because I’m trying to make anyone feel bad here, but I do think it’s important to understand the brutality of the history.”

That history came into the forefront Thursday when UF banned the Gator bait cheer at all athletic events. Although the cheer itself does not appear to have racist roots, the phrase does. And they reach deep into Florida.

Related: Florida Gators banning ‘Gator Bait’ cheer because of the phrase’s ‘horrific historic racist imagery'

Ortiz first started learning about the phrase and imagery when he was writing his dissertation on African-American history in Florida as a graduate student. He found first-hand accounts of white people claiming to use black infants as bait while hunting in the Everglades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Initially I thought it was an anomaly or something,” Ortiz said. “Then you see it over and over and over again.”

Images like this one were sent on postcards and sold as prints in the 1900s.
Images like this one were sent on postcards and sold as prints in the 1900s. [ Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia ]

Ortiz said it’s not entirely clear whether those events actually happened or if they were just tall tales caused by hunters bragging about the large animals they bagged. Regardless, the idea made its way into postcards and other images. Ortiz said they were designed to market Florida as an exotic location for tourists from the North or Europe. The language was supposed to be funny.

“That’s what makes it even worse,” said Ortiz, whose work includes the book Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.

Although the Gators’ cheer wasn’t really on Ortiz’s radar, he said he knows it made some of his black students and colleagues uncomfortable.

“It has kept people from going to Gator sports in the past,” Ortiz said. “But it hasn’t risen to the level of something that people would actually protest just simply because there were so many other issues that were going on.”

These are some of the gator bait trinkets at Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
These are some of the gator bait trinkets at Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. [ Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia ]

But the issue resurfaced recently, amidst the nationwide racial unrest follow George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. The decision to ban the cheer Thursday was only one of the steps UF has vowed to take to address racial inequality.

“I’m really proud of the University of Florida today,” Ortiz said Thursday evening. “There’s a lot of happiness, a lot of pride, a lot of relief that UF is really kind of joining the world right now in denouncing racism and, more importantly, figuring out how to move forward and challenge racism…”