The future of race and diversity at UF is bright

Today, I want to tell you about George Starke Jr., the first African-American student to enroll at UF.

Born in Orlando, the son of a librarian and a doctor, Mr. Starke attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, then served four years in the U.S. Air Force before applying to three law schools: Northwestern, Washington University and UF.

His LSAT scores were excellent and all three admitted him. He always wanted to attend UF, and that’s what he chose.

His first few weeks of class in Gainesville were far from ordinary.

As he wrote in The Orlando Sentinel last September, a video (available on YouTube) shows him seated in University Auditorium on the first day of class as reporters and photographers take notes and snap pictures of him.

Wary of violence by integration opponents, the Gainesville Police Department posted an officer at night across the street from the house where he lived with relatives.

Until Thanksgiving break, he was unknowingly escorted around UF by plainclothes Florida Highway Patrol troopers posing as students, ready to step in in case he was threatened.

Last month marked 60 years since Mr. Starke took that brave first step onto our campus and opened the doors that had been closed to black students since the university was founded.

What has changed since that day in fall 1958?

Mr. Starke became one of only a handful of black students at UF in the early years of integration. We are much more diverse today, though our population of black students remains far too low.

In his era, the UF band played “Dixie” at football games, and students waved the Confederate flag.

Today, we are a campus that celebrates and welcomes all people and cultures.  Indeed, when white supremacist Richard Spencer became an unwanted visitor to campus a year ago, he and his racist hatred were vilified by everyone at UF.

What has not changed in the past six decades?

Mr. Starke recalls being generally welcomed by students, and he experienced no violence.

But as the only black student on campus, he was isolated. The other early students who integrated UF also felt isolated and lonely.

Unfortunately, some African-American students at UF today continue to experience those same feelings of isolation. Unfortunately also, we have not been free of racist incidents, though we denounce all forms of racism and seek to hold those responsible accountable.

In June, UF welcomed its first chief diversity officer, Antonio Farias. A cabinet-level position, he is charged with establishing a new standard of excellence in equity, diversity and inclusion.

Mr. Farias has already become a visible and active presence across campus and on social media, meeting with all constituents to gain an deep understanding of the work that needs to be done and how.

Last month, construction began on a $10 million project to create two new buildings for UF’s historic Institute of Black Culture and Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures.

It is my hope that when these beautiful new student-driven institutes open next fall, they will serve not only as embracing centers for African-American and Hispanic/LatinX students, but also as beacons of anti-racism and love for all people for our entire campus.

Mr. Starke, whose admission to UF was made possible by the pioneering civil rights efforts of Virgil Hawkins, did not complete his studies at UF.

He withdrew in early 1960 and instead pursued a successful career in business in the Northeast.  Now retired, he enjoys a strong relationship with UF and the Levin College of Law.

On Nov. 7, the UF Law Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations will commemorate 60 years of desegregation at UF.

The event, set for 3 to 4:30 p.m. in Room 180 in Holland Hall, will feature reflections from students and alumni and, fittingly, a tribute to George Starke Jr. – the courageous pioneer who helped set UF on the right course so many years ago.

As a gentle and beautiful reminder to our campus of UF's core values, music professor Dr. Laura Ellis is scheduled at 12:35 p.m. today to play on the Century Tower carillon "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as she did so powerfully on Oct. 19, 2017.