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

1969 Band Protest Against ‘Dixie’ Brings Results for Black Students in Pensacola

“In the fall of 1969, the Escambia School Board chose Pensacola High School to host a football exhibition featuring the Pensacola Naval Air Station squad. The school band planned to play ‘Dixie’ as part of its ‘Fiesta of Flags’ halftime show, but several blacks who belonged to the ensemble objected to the song. The band director gave them an ultimatum — play the tune of fail the music course.

The students took their dilemma to [Rev. H. K.] Matthews, who also despised ‘Dixie’ because he believed it romanticized the antebellum plantation culture. School officials refused to compromise with the dissenters or meet with Matthews, so he decided that the black students who participated in the halftime festivities should make their sentiments clear. When the band began to play ‘Dixie’ near the end of the halftime routine, most of the group’s black students lowered their instruments and walked off the football field. Many white band members kept playing, unaware that the students had abandoned their marching formation, while some stopped in astonishment as their classmates left the group.

Blacks in the crowd cheered the protest, except for a few parents who shouted at Matthews angrily. Stunned silence characterized the response of white crowd members. In the days that followed the episode, PHS reversed their policy on ‘Dixie,’ removed it from the band’s song list and did not fail any blacks as punishment for their actions.”

So What?!: In case you haven’t noticed, the push to remove memorials that commemorate the ugly memories of the antebellum South continues to this day.

Source: Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida 1960-1980 By J. Michael Butler The University of North Carolina Press, 2016 p. 75

The Racist Origins of West Palm Beach, Fla.

“In May 1893, [Henry] Flagler broke ground on the Lake Worth side of Palm Beach for the six-story, Colonial-style Royal Poinciana Hotel. A workers’ slum sprouted immediately near the site to house the bulk of the one-thousand laborers thrown at the task. They dubbed their shantytown, The Styx — perhaps a reflection of their feeling toward what they built, or of the exorbitant rent they paid or of their belief they were in the sticks, a remote and wild region.

The Styx lasted until Flagler built his company town for all but his most favored white workers across Lake Worth in a two-hundred acre enclave. On this land — considered the least desirable in the area for settlement because of its dampness — James Ingraham laid down the grid for West Palm Beach.”

Source: Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida By Mark Derr University Press of Florida, 1998 p. 42

Segregation Once Ruled Florida’s Institutions of Higher Learning



“The state’s school program, including higher eduction, remained segregated by race. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes at Tallahassee continued as one of two land grant institutions. It offered a variety of other courses other than engineering and agriculture. A much larger choice of fields was possible at Gainesville’s all-white, all-male University of Florida. It boasted a College of Law and a broad liberal arts program, while no state law school was available to blacks. The Florida State College for Women at Tallahassee had programs in teacher education but built its strongest reputation in the liberal arts.”

Source: The New History of Florida Edited by Michael Gannon University Press of Florida, 1996 p. 314