In praise of history that makes our hearts race

Sixty one years ago, an Air Force veteran named George Starke, Jr., became the first African-American student to attend UF when he enrolled in our law school.

Mr. Starke, who went on to a successful career in business, never graduated. In an interview he gave for UF’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, he explained that the pressure he felt to live up to being a historic figure, rather than simply another law student, became overwhelming.

“You must do well and you push yourself harder than anybody else has to,” he said. “…I was not a public figure and had no aspirations in that regard.”

History can be remote and inaccessible. But it can also be personal and surprising. History can make our hearts race.  It can make us cringe or cry or cheer.

We get to celebrate this kind of history this month with a symposium as well as a new dramatic production surrounding the oral histories of African-American Floridians.

Starting next Thursday, “From Segregation to Black Lives Matter” will bring together historians, scholars, students and Gainesville community members for three days of discussion surrounding the official opening of a remarkable UF resource: the Joel Buchanan African American Oral History Archive.

This archive, part of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, consists of more than 600 oral histories given by black Floridians about lives spanning most of the 20th century. The interviews were conducted by UF students, faculty and volunteers.

Named in honor of Joel Buchanan, a local educator who conducted many interviews with Gainesville residents, the archive includes the histories of  people active in Civil Rights, those with family stories passed down directly from slavery, descendants of the survivors of the Second Seminole War, the first black students at UF and many others, says Paul Ortiz, director of the Proctor program and a UF history professor.

Spanning all of Florida and extending to interviews with civil rights activists in the Mississippi Delta, it is one of the largest regional collections of black oral histories, comprising an “odyssey” of African-American history, Dr. Ortiz says.

That odyssey arrives in another form on stage Saturday with a  performance of “From Colored to Black: The Stories of North Central Florida.” Featuring dramatic renditions of oral histories of such historic moments as the desegregation of St. Augustine, the production runs for two days at the Squitieri Studio Theatre.

I and many others experienced the Buchanan oral histories in 2015 through a play: “Gator Tales,” which told the story of the integration of UF and local schools.

Written by Theatre and Dance Professor Kevin Marshall, the play is UF history brought to stirring life.

Evelyn Moore Mickle, the first black graduate of our College of Nursing, tells how she was first invited to attend UF, then neither welcomed nor offered help, then quickly invited to leave. She stuck it out after a heart-to-heart with her mother.

Ron Coleman, a track and field student-athlete who was UF’s first black scholarship athlete, remembers eating meals alone because white athletes would not sit with him.  This ended when Jack Youngblood, a defensive lineman who became a legendary Gator athlete, came up and pointedly asked, “Can I sit with you?”

“That right there put an end to any type of prejudice from within the athletic side,” Coleman says.

For me, oral histories help me fully grasp how we arrived at the realities and challenges of the present and gain insight into the high personal cost of achieving positive change – and the sacrifice required of individuals who blaze that trail.

Which brings me back to Mr. Starke.

Amid his career in investment banking and energy consulting, he became an active alumnus and valued supporter of UF, including receiving a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009. We will award him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at our May commencement. The honorary doctorate is UF’s highest honor.

I remain grateful to Mr. Starke and his fellow pioneers for contributing to the cause of civil rights, for integrating our university, and for sharing their oral histories for posterity.

Through history we better the world – one interview, one symposium, one play at a time.