UF Levin College of Law Commemorates Constitution Day
The University of Florida Levin College of Law celebrated Constitution Day on Sept. 17 by honoring the civil rights pioneers responsible for changing the course of history for minority students.
“Today we start a new year-long effort to remember and archive the struggle for desegregation,” said Pedro Malavet, UF College of Law professor and chair of the Constitution Day planning committee. “We can not possibly understand the significance of our current, diverse student body unless we remember and acknowledge the truly heroic individual struggle these men and women endured.”
The program featured a presentation by Harley Herman, Esq. of de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal, on the life and legacy of Virgil Hawkins.
In addition, a panel discussion was held on the federal constitutional issues in law school desegregation with Kenneth Nunn, Professor of Law; Harley Herman, Esq., de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal; Juan Perea, Cone Wagner Nugent Johnson, Hazouri and Roth Professor of Law; and Stephan P. Mickle, U.S. District Judge, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida.
In 1949, Virgil Hawkins applied to the UF University of Florida’s law school and was denied entry based on the color of his skin. After nine years of legal battles, Hawkins entered into an agreement with the state to withdraw his application in exchange for a court order to desegregate UF’s graduate and professional schools. This opened the door for George Starke Jr., the first African-American to be admitted to the law school, and the Hon. Stephan Mickle, the first African-American to earn an undergraduate and law degree from the University of Florida.
“In reality, Virgil Hawkins never expected to be the Rosa Parks of Florida or his admission to the UF’s College of Law to be the Ft. Sumter of civil liberties,” said Harley Herman, a UF College of Law graduate, and the attorney who laid the ground work to recognize and honor Hawkins.
On hand for the commemoration, George Starke Jr. told the audience that even though he had never met Virgil Hawkins, he appreciates the sacrifice he made. “Virgil Hawkins made it possible for me to attend law school,” Starke said. “He made it all possible.”
Hawkins’ niece also addressed the audience telling them that Hawkins’ faith provided him with patience and perseverance. “Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible,” said Harriet Livingston. “Virgil Hawkins taught us not to judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
At the close of the program Robert Jerry, dean and a Levin, Mabie and Levin professor of law, reminded the audience to remember the heroic efforts of Virgil Hawkins, George Starke, W. George Allen and Stephan Mickle. “As we leave today, we leave with the inspiration to do good and remember the struggle of those who came before us.”
UF Law has changed greatly in the years since Hawkins, Allen, Starke and Mickle. W. George Allen said that the biggest change he’s seen in UF Law was “the proliferation of minority and women students.”
“When I started there I was the only black and there were only two women. Now the class is more diverse and it represents society — but I started in 1960. Now, the law school is more in tune to the population. The diversity has been good for the school,” said Allen.
Allen (JD 63), attorney, distinguished UF Law alumnus and former president of the National Bar Association, is UF’s first African-American law graduate. Allen and his wife, Enid, are major contributors to the UF Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, and he is a member of the UF Foundation Board of Directors. UF’s Black Law Student Association is named in his honor.