Rename Buildings Glorifying Racists at UF

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With the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop and other members of the Black community, we have once again witnessed the manifestation of a centuries old problem for which no real action has been taken. While we observe what seems to be a unified condemnation of these horrible and racist acts, it is time we recognize that bold action to eradicate racism nationwide and on our own campus is long overdue.

The University of Florida boasts student unions, sporting arenas, libraries, dorms, and other facilities named after racist individuals. For decades, students on this campus have tried to argue the obvious: no matter how much you contribute financially to our university or how early of a figure you were in its development, the very students you sought to keep out of UF should not have to study, eat, learn, compete, live and grow in spaces named in your honor. At a time when our country is finally waking up to the reality Black individuals face every day, how can UF condemn the acts of racism that occur across our nation but still continue to honor the legacies of those who engaged in hateful, discriminatory and racist behavior on our campus? 

We cannot pretend to teach tolerance and support anti-racism when UF students must literally walk into the reality of racism each and every day on our campus. Whether it is at the J. Wayne Reitz Union or the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, it is time that UF’s commitment to anti-racism goes beyond simple statements, short videos or calls to update our Diversity Action Plan. We must show Black students that we value them feeling welcome and comfortable on this campus —more than we fear backlash from influential donors or family members of past UF historical figures.

There are things in 2020 America we should all be able to agree on. I would hope one of them is this: there are more appropriate individuals for whom to name our campus buildings after than segregationists or those who exhibited racist behavior towards our Black student body throughout UF’s history. Below are just SOME examples of the racist behavior of individuals whose names adorn UF’s buildings:

  • Stephen C. O’Connell was a well-known segregationist. In 1959, he was a member of the majority on the Florida Supreme Court when it denied entrance to a Black man seeking admission to UF on the grounds that the applicant was “a potential disruptive influence.” In 1971, UF President O’Connell arrested and threatened to expel 66 Black students who organized a sit-in at Tigert Hall as an expression of discontent with university policies that did not encourage Black student enrollment or the employment of Black faculty members. The students were later denied amnesty for their actions and the event is remembered in UF History as “Black Thursday.” (Stephen C. O’Connell Center)
  • UF President Julius Wayne Reitz denied admission to 85 Black students including Virgil Hawkins. Hawkins sued the school and his case resulted in a court order that ultimately forced UF to integrate despite Reitz’s objections. Additionally, Reitz allowed witch hunts targeting the LGBTQ+ community. He is quoted in 1988 as saying, “As a matter of fact, I’ll be the first to admit that anyone who was a homosexual was a complete aberration.” (J. Wayne Reitz Student Union)
  • George A. Smathers was one of 101 politicians who signed the Southern Manifesto, a document condemning the racial integration of schools following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. (George A. Smathers Libraries)
  • Henry H. Buckman authored the Buckman Act which was a 1905 law segregating Florida’s colleges by race and gender. (Buckman Hall)
  • Stephen Mallory was a U.S. Senator and Confederate cabinet member who had a building named for his wife, Angela Mallory. (Mallory Hall)
  • Mary Martha Reid was a prominent Confederate nurse during the American Civil War. (Reid Hall)
  • David Levy Yulee was a U.S. Senator who was in favor of slavery and the secession of Florida. After the Civil War, he was imprisoned for nine months after helping Confederate President Jefferson Davis escape from prison. He had a building named for his wife, Nancy Wycliffe Yulee. (Yulee Hall)
  • Spessard L. Holland was one of 101 politicians who signed the Southern Manifesto, a document condemning the racial integration of schools following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. (Holland Law Center at the UF Law School)

The actions of these individuals were wrong then, and refusing to hold them accountable by honoring them on our campus is wrong now. We are at a point in which vocal support for anti-racism is not enough. UF must take bold and decisive action to address racism on campus. It is now that as a public institution of learning we must ask ourselves what our guiding principles and values are. Do we stand with Black students, Black professors and our Black UF community or do we stand with a painful history of segregation and racism on this campus? Black student athletes should not endure having to compete in a building named after a man who once felt they had no place at UF, and “Reitz Scholar” should not remain a title that recognizes high achievement and leadership.

The conversation needed to make UF a true home for Black students must begin with this course of action. Until we build an environment where Black students can feel comfortable and like they are wanted and belong here, our statements promoting diversity and inclusion ring hollow. This action will by no means solve all the racial problems we have here at UF, but it is a necessary start. Until we as a university can acknowledge and correct the mistakes of our past by no longer honoring an outdated mentality that peddled in intolerance and exclusion, we cannot begin the process of truly healing the painful racial wounds of our history and moving towards a more tolerant and inclusive future.

We are asking that now, in 2020, UF recognize the mistakes of the past and take this necessary step in giving Black students the justice and respect that has been withheld from them for more than 60 years on our campus. We must recognize the racist legacy we are upholding and act to change it. Let’s not let this moment pass us by, but instead have it signify the start of a time when we stood with our Black UF community against all else. We are at a defining moment where we must decide whether the money of wealthy donors matters more to us than respect for the experiences of Black members of our student body, faculty and staff.  As President Fuchs said in a recent video address, “there has never been a more urgent need to come together against racism and hate and in support of justice.” Inaction in the face of racism, past or present, is emboldening racism itself.