Desegregation Pioneers Honored During UF Constitution Day

by Scott Emerson & Katie Blasewitz

Fifty years ago one man changed the course of history for higher education in the state of Florida. African American, academically eligible, and eager to start his instruction, Virgil Hawkins was denied admission to the University of Florida College of Law based solely on his race.

In 1949, Virgil D. Hawkins applied to the UF law school and was denied entry based on the color of his skin. With the legal assistance of future Associate Justice of the United States Thurgood Marshall, it took nine years, five Florida Supreme Court and four U.S. Supreme Court rulings before Hawkins broke the color barrier for students at UF — but at great personal cost. Hawkins abandoned his own aspirations to attend the College of Law by agreeing in 1958 to drop his suit against the state if Florida would desegregate university admissions.

On Sept. 15, 1958, George H. Starke Jr. enrolled in the UF College of Law, becoming the first black student to enter the university. In 1962, W. George Allen became the first black student to receive a degree from the UF College of Law. In 1965, the Honorable Stephan Mickle, United States District Judge in the Northern District of Florida, became the first black student to earn an undergraduate degree from the university.

Hawkins went on to graduate from New England School of Law in 1964 and became a member of The Florida Bar in 1977. Because of his efforts to desegregate the state university system, more than 12,000  African Americans have since earned degrees at the University of Florida.

“Virgil Hawkins and the other students of color who followed demonstrated remarkable personal courage and persistence,” said Robert Jerry, dean and Levin Mabie and Levin Professor of Law. “Today, UF has a more diverse student body, one that more closely matches the population of Florida and the nation.”

The 50th anniversary of desegregation was celebrated at UF on Sept. 15, and the civil rights pioneers responsible for changing the course of history for minority students were honored during the university’s Constitution Day Program hosted by the Levin College of Law on Sept. 17. The program featured a presentation by Harley Herman, Esq. (JD 78) of de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal on the life and legacy of Virgil Hawkins.

“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 Herman, the attorney who laid the ground work to recognize and honor Hawkins.

The program also included a panel discussion on the federal constitutional issues in law school desegregation with Kenneth Nunn, professor of law; Herman; 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.

George H Starke Jr. addressed the audience during the program and said that even though he had never mat 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, Harriet Livingston, 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 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 Dean Robert Jerry reminded the audience to remember the heroic efforts of Virgil Hawkins, George H. Starke Jr., W George Allen and Stephan Mickle. “As we leave today, we leave with the inspiration to do goof and remember the struggle of those who came before us.”

W. George Allen (JD 63) enrolled in law school in September 1960, and became the first African-American law student to graduate from UF Law. UF Law has changed greatly in the years since Hawkins, Allen, Starke and Mickle attended. Allen said that the biggest change he’s seem in UF Law was “the proliferation of minority and women students.”

Allen is a former president of the National Bar Association, and he and wife, Enid, are major contributors to the UF center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, Allen serves as a member of the UF Foundation Board of Directors, and the college’s Black Law Student Association is named in his honor.

“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,” said Allen. “Now, the law school is more in tune with the population. The diversity has been good for the school.”