Virgil Hawkins’ Sacrifice Opens the Door for Black Law Students in Florida

Virgil D. Hawkins
Virgil D. Hawkins

By Douglas C. Lyons

On May 25, 1949, Virgil D. Hawkins filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida. His goal? Hawkins wanted to attend the University of Florida Law School, a school that barred blacks. Hawkins had waited a long time. He was 41 years old son of an Opahumpka preacher and a Bethune Cookman College faculty member at the time of the lawsuit.

Hawkins was qualified; state officials all but admitted that. Racial segregation, however, dies hard. Even though the university’s stand drew nationwide scorn, the Florida Supreme Court snubbed its nose at a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Hawkins should be admitted to the law school.

Hawkins had no idea of the sacrifice he would make to integrate the state’s only public law school. To sidestep the High Court and allow black students to attend the UF law school, state officials opened a law school at Florida A&M College, the state’s all-black public college. They urged Hawkins to apply there. He refused.

In 1958, state officials agreed to a settlement that opened the law school’s admission policies to all Florida residents — except one. The settlement would go into effect only after Hawkins promised never to enroll. Hawkins eventually earned his law degree from a college in New England, not UF.

The ‘So What?!’ Significance: Let’s give Virgil Hawkins credit. He had the “balls” to file a lawsuit against the state of Florida and stuck with it to the point where victory seemed obtainable, only to be dashed by a “settlement” that kicked him to the curb. He put other black aspirants ahead of his own desire to attend Florida’s premiere law school. Sounds like a sacrifice for the greater good.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.

Source: Virgil Hawkins Stood Up to State 50 Years Ago, by Ramsey Campbell Orlando Sentinel May 23, 1999

Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Gov. Lawton Chiles Compensates Rosewood Massacre Descendants

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

Rosewood, Fla. 1923

Every now and then the state government of Florida does the right thing and acknowledges a historic wrong, sometimes it goes as far as to commemorate that transgression. Such was the case on May 4, 1994.

That was the date when the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a $2.1 million compensation bill for the surviving families of the Rosewood massacre, which took place in 1923 after rampaging whites sought revenge for a woman who claimed she was raped by a black man. The crazed crowd devastated the black community of Rosewood in rural Levy County. Five black residents were killed, property was burned or stolen, and the survivors fled the county to live the rest of their lives in shame.

Entering Rosewwod

But, in 1994, several survivors of the Rosewood families filed a claims bill in the Florida Legislature, and ultimately a Special Master appointed by the Florida Speaker of the House ruled that the state had a “moral obligation” to compensate the survivors for mental anguish, property loss and the violation of their constitutional rights. The bill signed into law by Gov. Chiles gave nine survivors $150,000 each and established a college scholarship and a separate fund to compensate descendants of the Rosewood survivors who could prove property loss.

Acknowledgement of a wrong bordering on commemoration.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.BlackinFla.com.

Photo Credits:

Florida Schools Surprise with Strong Civil Rights History Standards

 

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

Douglas C. Lyons

Well, well well. The Sunshine State received a passing grade in one educational category that frankly surprised me — civil rights. According to Teaching the Movement 2014, a report put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Teaching Tolerance, Florida earned a ‘B.’

Congratulations are in order. Florida ranked 11th, beating out California, Massachusetts, Illinois, the District of Columbia and many other states where you’d think the civil rights movement would be a part of the curriculum. Guess not.

The state’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards contains a number of benchmarks specific to the civil rights movement from kindergarten through high school, the report found.

The report also had kudos for the state’s African American History Week Task Force, which ensures awareness of requirements and recommends any action needed to improve instructional materials and partnerships.

Is there room for improvement? Of course. More, for example, could be said about Jim Crow, segregation laws and other episodes of white resistance, and while overall content is strong, more is needed to show conflicts within the movement or connect the movement to current events.

Still, the report’s conclusion raises hope: “With a few changes,” the report reads, ” the state could have model standards for teaching the civil rights movement.”

Florida can be proud of this 2014 assessment, The challenge today, though,  is to ensure the state of Florida keeps it moving in the right direction.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering the ‘Coalition of Conscience’ March , Tallahassee’s Largest Civil Rights Protest

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

Douglas C. Lyons

It all started when two black Florida legislators decided to wait for an audience with the governor. At the time, then–state Sen. Kendrick Meek and Rep. Tony Hill had hoped to talk to then-Gov. Jeb Bush about his executive order to end affirmative action in state government and replace it with One Florida.

When Bush told the lawmakers they had better get comfortable because there would be no meeting to discuss the policy change, well, as they say, the rest is history. The two lawmakers stayed put, and their sit-in prompted a civil rights protest. On March 7, 2000, more than 10,000 protesters rallied at the state capitol in Tallahassee to voice their opposition to the state’s “race-neutral” policy.

Dubbed the “Coalition of Conscience,” the protest march on the Capitol coincided  with the beginning of Bush’s “State of the State” speech at the opening session of the Legislature. At times, the governor’s address competed with the noise of the demonstration outside of the capitol building. It was one of the largest rallies held in Tallahassee, exceeding that of the nearly 10,000 protesters who gathered to support the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.

Among those who attended: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and the Rev. Martin Luther King III, along with several national union leaders and Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.

One Florida remains a landmark of Jeb Bush’s political legacy, and although you don’t hear much about it — or affirmative action, for that matter –both issues shouldn’t be forgotten.

Ensuring that all job applicants and students aspiring to college have an equal chance at obtaining their goals remains important today, particularly in a world economy where competition not only comes from outside our borders but from mechanization, artificial intelligence and other forms of new technology.

The more things change …

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com

 

Let’s Do a Better Job Cherishing Florida’s Black History

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

Douglas C. Lyons

I consider myself one of the fortunate ones. I had the chance to celebrate my very own Black History Month moment this February. I wish others could have that same experience.

My aunt, Juanita Lark, was the first black graduate of Goshen College, and the school decided to honor her this month by renaming its welcoming center the “Juanita Lark Welcome Center.” My family thought that was pretty cool, especially for a predominantly white school in Indiana.

My aunt graduated in 1943. She was pretty much by herself as the only “Negro” in a Mennonite college located in rural Goshen, Indiana. I can’t imagine doing what my aunt did — leaving Washington, D.C. for a college education in a very far away place and a very different culture.

But, my aunt did, and went on to establish a successful teaching career in the city of Chicago. Members of my family enjoyed the celebration, and it was just that — a celebration.

My wish for black folk in Florida is to learn and cherish their state’s rich cultural roots. Bowlegs, Harry T. Moore, James Weldon Johnson, T. Thomas Fortune, Josiah Walls and Daniel “Chappie’ James are just a few of the black Floridians who grace our nation’s history books but whose accomplishments risk being lost to history. Shouldn’t happen, folks.

There’s more to Florida’s Black history than what many residents in the Sunshine State see or know.  Let’s do better in cherishing it next February.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

James Weldon Johnson’s Observation on Negro Dialect

“I had read some Negro dialect and heard snatches of it on my journey down from Washington; but here I heard it in all of its fullness and freedom. I was particularly struck by the way it was punctuated by such exclamatory phrases as ‘Lawd a mussy!’ ‘Gwan man!’ ‘Bless my soul!’ ‘Look heath chile!’ 

These people talked and laughed without restraint. In fact, they talked straight from their lungs, and laughed from the pits of their stomachs. And this hearty laughter was often justified by their droll humor of some remark. I paused long enough to hear one man say to another, ‘W’at’s de mattah wid you an’ yo’ fr’en’ Sam?’ and the other came back in a flash, ‘Ma fr’en? He my fr’en? Man! I go to his funeral jes de same as I’d go to a minstrel show.’ I have since learned that this ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.”

Source: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson Library of America Paperback Classics, 2011, p. 36

Florida’s One-Man Civil-Rights Movement

 

Harry T. Moore
Harry T. Moore

As a strategist, Harry T. Moore was ahead of his time. Years before the Civil Rights Movement took hold, the leader of the Florida NAACP State Conference methodically took on brutal racial atrocities, including his most challenging case of the Groveland Boys, largely by himself.

Facing Willis V. McCall, a sheriff who made Birmingham’s Eugene “Bull” Connor look like a Sunday school teacher, Moore began his 1949 campaign to bring justice to the four men accused of raping a white woman by writing state officials, urging them to stop the white violence against blacks. A telegram and letters to the governor hand state attorney soon followed.

Moore didn’t stop there. Eventually, he wrote a letter to President Harry Truman and members of the Florida congressional delegation, urging them to hold a special session of Congress to pass a civil rights bill. He even conducted his own investigation and issued a press release accusing McCall of police brutality.

It was a good start; it even prompted an FBI investigation. Unfortunately, it was only the beginning of a long process that tragically ended in Jim Crow justice.

Sources: Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr by Ben Green University Press of Florida 2005, pages 88-108 and A Traveler’s Guide to The Civil Rights Movement by Jim Carrier Harcourt 2004 pages 187-188

Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Remembering a Florida Icon: Butterfly McQueen

By Douglas C. Lyons

Yikes! I missed Butterfly McQueen’s birthday.

Many others may have forgotten this Florida native, like I did. But, on January 7, 1911, Thelma McQueen was born in Tampa. She would change her name and experience infamy.

Her initial career goal was to become a nurse, but a high school teacher thought she had the talent to act. So young Thelma set new sights and became a dancer, hoping to one day get a chance to act. Her big break would come and it would end up being her most memorable role — Prissy.

Prissy was a young slave in the film, Gone With the Wind, and although McQueen didn’t have much of a speaking role, the line: “I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing no babies!” proved to be both racially stereotypic and iconic.

Butterfly McQueen

The part brought similar roles that McQueen found demeaning. Her commentary on the type of roles that came her way resonate today in our #Hollywoodsowhite era.

“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen said. “But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”

Bottom line? McQueen had higher aspiration than the roles offered her in a time when film and television were clearly a whites-only realm. Diversity has come a long way from McQueen’s day, but there are still hurdles to overcome.

McQueen quit acting in films in 1947, but she continued acting, taking bit parts in television and radio. In 1979, she won an Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s  Programming for the ABC Afterschool Special episode “Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.”

McQueen also earned a degree in political science, which helped her in 1983 when a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 from a lawsuit she filed against two bus terminal security guards. McQueen sued for harassment after she claimed the security guards accused her of being a pickpocket and a vagrant while she was at a bus terminal in 1979.

Her only bit of controversy came long after the Prissy role in 1989 when was honored for her beliefs as an atheist. Her remarks at the Freedom from Religion Foundation event were later used as advertisements in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin. McQueen died in 1995 at the age of 84.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.