UF and UF Law honor W. George Allen
By Matt Walker
When W. George Allen became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Florida in 1962, it was not only a victory for him, but also for countless others who had fought for equality for decades at the university.
On Friday, Oct. 12, the University of Florida and UF Levin College of Law celebrated the 50th anniversary of Allen’s graduation from UF Law with a special program that looked back at the struggle leading to the acceptance of black students at the university and the groundwork laid for future generations by Virgil Hawkins, whose persistence in the courts led to UF Law’s integration, and George Starke, the first black person admitted to UF Law.
The Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom was filled to capacity and visitors filed into overflow areas as speakers reflected on the civil rights struggle and Allen’s role. Katheryn Russell-Brown, UF Law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, and Terry Nealy, president of the UF Association of Black Alumni, served as moderators. The celebration was co-sponsored by the University of Florida Alumni Association, Association of Black Alumni, UF Law and its Center for the Study of Race and Relations. The program served as the kick-off for the University of Florida’s Black Alumni Weekend.
“The integration story of Florida, not just in our institution but higher education throughout this entire state, the integration story of Florida began here,” Nealy said, “so it is appropriate that we kick off the opening ceremony of the Black Alumni Weekend where it all began – at the college of law.”
The celebration was punctuated with frequent applause and standing ovations as UF Law Dean Robert Jerry discussed desegregation heroes in the United States, attorney Harley Herman looked back at the legacy of Virgil D. Hawkins, who’s lawsuits against UF led to the university agreeing to accept African-American students, and UF Law alumna Ava Parker (JD 87) recounted the story of the first black person to enroll in UF, George H. Starke Jr. The program also included reflections from JaDawnya Butler (JD 04) and Brandon Campbell (2L), president of the Black Law Student Association.
The crowd was moved during the video essay, “First Footsteps: The Struggle for Racial Desegregation at UF,” which offered a detailed and sometimes jarring look back at the relationships of African-Americans with UF and the Alachua County area in the 20th century. The essay was produced by UF African-American Studies Professor Patricia Hilliard-Nunn.
Allen delivered the keynote speech, where he described his experience at UF Law as both bitter and sweet. He said he was met with much opposition when he began law school in September of 1960 as the only black student on campus. He said one of the sweet parts came when he realized that he was a direct beneficiary of the compromise made by Hawkins when he withdrew his application from the law school in exchange for the university agreeing to accept black students.
“Another sweet part was that (my wife) Enid and I realized we were engaging in an era that would open up higher education in Florida for all, including our children, our grandchildren, and many of you and your progeny,” Allen said.
In 1960, Allen and his wife were living in Berkeley, Calif., where he was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He had been accepted to Harvard Law School and the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, each of which he could have attended on scholarship.
“I failed to convince my wife Enid that it made economic sense to pay for an education at a segregated school when I could get scholarships to attend two prestigious school ranked higher than the law school at the University of Florida,” he said.
Allen said that by graduating from UF Law he was able to fulfill the tenacity, spirit, expectations, determination and will of Hawkins.
“So today I dedicate these 50 years of desegregation, 50 years of progress, 50 years of educating Florida’s best, brightest and successful students to the Bard of Okahumpka, Lake County’s favorite son, Lake County’s most famous son, Virgil Darnell Hawkins, my mentor, my friend, my hero,” Allen said in closing. “God bless you Virgil, and your spirit; you started a revolution and Florida is better because of you and your good work.”
The program concluded near the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard with the unveiling of a plaque honoring Allen’s legacy and graduation from UF Law.