by UF President Bernie Machen, with Aaron Hoover
In March 2009, UF President Bernie Machen delivered the following welcome remarks at a panel event recognizing local African American history in celebration the life and work of Joel Buchanan. The speech was also recently published in “The Purposes of the University, Selected Speeches.”
Chris and I are glad to join you tonight! Joel Buchanan and the panelists with us have spent a lifetime researching, writing about, and, through their activism, making African-American history.
I am eager to hear their thoughts about their personal experiences, their discipline, and how President Obama’s service influences their perspective.
I am also delighted to support the Samuel Proctor Oral History [Program] in its efforts to ramp up the preservation and promotion of Florida black history. This public program is part of that campaign, and it is well-timed.
Everyone nods to the importance of history, but why? Why care about doing history, African American or otherwise? I was thinking about this question, and I was reminded that we at the University of Florida did some history of our own last year — we celebrated the 50th anniversary of UF’s integration.
It was surprisingly challenging. And yet, I think our experience left me with some insights about the deep value of historical inquiry.
1958 was, of course, the year that George Starke, Jr. became UF’s first black student when he enrolled in our law school. He was followed in short order by George Allen, the first to graduate from the law school, and Stephan Mickle, the first black student to earn an undergraduate degree. All are celebrated, as well as they should be.
But the committee in charge of this year’s commemoration wanted to also recognize the black graduates who integrated UF’s other colleges.
Like Mr. Starke, Mr. Allen and Mr. Mickle, most of these students experienced an unfriendly or indifferent campus. Some white students wouldn’t speak to them. Some faculty were patronizing, or worse. Administrators were not always sympathetic.
It took courage to be black, to be 18 or 19, to be away from home, in this place!
Yet, when Florida Bridgewater-Alford, our community relations director, sought out these graduates’ names, she kept coming up empty.
With a few notable exceptions, no one bothered to note the identities of the first black students to graduate their colleges. Fifty years on, it was like they had never been there.
You’d think ferreting out the names would be easy. Just check with the registrar. But, back then, no one recorded race on transcripts. Why should they? Everyone was white!
I won’t detail all the committee’s detective work, but it was considerable.
In the end, our historian, Carl Van Ness, literally scoured UF’s old yearbooks in search of African American faces. Carl then attempted to cross-check the names beneath the yearbook pictures with university records.
As he is the first to admit, this method has gaping flaws. Physical features are often ambiguous when it comes to race. But, there you have it.
In some cases, those who worked on this project were able to confirm that a student had, in fact, been the first black student to graduate his or her college. In others, we could determine only that a student was one of the first.
In any case, we wound up expanding the list of “firsts” from just a handful to, I am proud to say, twenty first black graduates.
When the committee contacted these graduates to invite them to a dinner and recognition in their honor, some expressed disbelief.
They were astonished that a university which had hosted them only reluctantly, under a cloud of institutionalized racism, would reach out a half century later.
At the time, some of these students felt so bad about their experience at UF they didn’t attend their own graduation ceremony!
Doing history helps turn the page. It makes wrongs right. It allows people to move on.
Some of these graduates have since told their stories to UF oral historians. Their words join the words of others in the Florida black history collection.
What becomes clear when you consider this collection is that these memories constitute not just African American history, but American history.
These words recount experience that whether black or white, we all share.
Does Barack Obama’s election suggest we are overcoming this past? We can hardly answer that without having our history laid out before us as our guide and our reference.
As George Santayana wrote, “A country without memory is a country of madmen.”
My final insight from our 50th anniversary celebration is that it’s important to do this history now, today. Because, otherwise, much of it will disappear.
It was hard enough to find our first black graduates and bring them to UF this year, five decades after they arrived. We won’t have these people forever.
Nor will we have the many white and black Americans who joined the Freedom Rides, assembled for the “I Have A Dream” speech, who integrated the nation’s other secondary schools and universities.
Now is the time to gather their memories — to add their stories to our story.
On that note, I am very pleased tonight to have the opportunity to present a special honor to a man who may have done more to preserve and celebrate local African American history than any other. He is my good friend, Joel Buchanan.
Joel made his own history: He was the first black student to pass through the doors of Gainesville High School.
Through the years since, he continued his activism while also taking on the role of a beloved community caretaker.
In the early 1980s, long before Florida black history was on the radar, Joel gathered some 45 oral histories of local African Americans. His work can be found online today in the “Fifth Avenue Blacks” section of the digital collection.
Joel Buchanan has been recognized for his work with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Keeper of the Dream Award and the Rosa Parks Silent Courage Award, among other awards.
Tonight, I would like to add our own symbol of appreciation.
Joel, will you join me here on stage so that I can give you a plaque.
The plaque reads, “The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program Recognizes Joel Buchanan. In honor of your work to preserve and promote African American History for Future Generations. March 17, 2009.”