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.
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.”
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.”
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…”