Councille Blye’s Coventry

I wrote this some years ago about a man who started out being just another news interview subject and ended up a close friend and confidant. He was also a Gainesville legacy and not to be forgotten.

In 1971 Neil Butler made history when he became Gainesville’s first black mayor since Reconstruction. And sitting in the audience on Butler’s first day as presiding officer was a beaming, if skeptical, Councille Blye.

“I just wanted to see if he was going to sit in the middle position and wield the gavel, and lo-and-behold he did,” Blye told The Sun. “People are beginning to communicate but I am not ready to say ‘yea, yea Gainesville!’ because there are real problems here.”

Still, Blye allowed, housing and job discrimination seemed to be on the retreat in Gainesville.

Blye could speak with some authority on the issue of discrimination. Born and raised here, he had been the first African-American to seek admission to the University of Florida; in 1949, when it was illegal for a black to attend Floridas all-white flagship school.

In 1967, as a young teacher, Blye asked the School Board to assigned him to a white school. The board refused.

Blye was one of four charter members of the Gainesville branch of the NAACP. He was an original member of the local American Civil Liberties Union and sat on the city’s Human Relations Advisory Board and the Florida Council on Human Relations.

And, yes, Blye could personally attest to progress on the equal opportunity front.

Twenty years after being rejected because of the color of his skin, Blye was admitted to do graduate work at UF. And in 1971, the same year Neil Butler became mayor, Blye achieved his lifelong dream. He became an assistant professor of English at UF.

The dream lasted one year.

In 1972, he was fired after two students accused him of making sexual advances. His termination was as remarkable for the speed with which it was executed as the paucity of evidence against him.

For years afterward, Blye appealed his termination. But federal civil rights investigators and judges alike determined that he had not been the victim of racial discrimination.

Which was true.

Blye was fired because his student accusers were male.

The case against him rested largely on ‘he said, he said’ evidence. But true or not, it hardly mattered.

In 1972, it was illegal to discriminate against Councille Blye the black man. But Councille Blye the gay man was invisible in the eyes of the law.

Blyes firing became a cause celeb in liberal Gainesville. At one point two respected Gainesville physicians, Dr. Cullen W. Banks and E.S. Crosby, and five reputable UF faculty members signed a letter requesting Blyes rehiring. “As far as we can tell, there was no evidence that Mr. Blye used pressure on a student, nor do we believe him to be the type of person who would use such pressure,” they wrote.

Tigert Hall was unmoved. It remained adamant when the ACLU and the American Association of University Professors took on his cause. When William Raspberry, of the Washington Post, wrote about Blye. And when The Alligator, The Sun and newspapers around the state took an interest.

Ironically, Councille never intended to be at the epicenter of a gay rights struggle. Before the accusations, his sexual proclivities had been a closely guarded secret. Forced out of the closet, however, Blye did not shy from the fight.

“I can simply parallel my feelings as a homosexual with my feelings as a black,” he once told The Sun. “I was startled to learn how much of a parallel existed. Bigotry is bigotry. I refuse to allow society to place its collective fears on me. If a person doesn’t like homosexuals, it’s not the homosexuals problem, it’s the person’s problem.”

I first wrote about Blye in 1974, as a young reporter for The Independent Florida Alligator. But over the years I’ve thought about him a lot, for obvious reasons: Most recently in the wake of the Florida Legislature’s war on transsexual athletes.

Same ugly story about institutional bigotry…only a slightly different pretext.

Councille loved Gainesville, and he never really wanted to live anywhere else.

And he continue to live right here in Gainesville. Until he was murdered in 1983.

David Smith, former Alligator editor and Blye’s friend, told The Sun in 1985: “Gainesville was a place he always called home. At the same time, it was a place that was extraordinarily cruel to him.”

Back in 1976, Sun reporter Skip Perez wrote a provocative feature story about Blye, by then Gainesville’s most celebrated homosexual. Among other things, Skip wrote about Blye’s love of fine possessions, and noted that he owned a nine-foot-high, 300-year-old postulants chair from Coventry Cathedral in England.

That prompted Blye to write a letter to the editor, in which he responded in typical professorial fashion:

“Coventry, near Warwickshire in central England, was originally a small colony to which the undesirables of various types, including Lady Godiva and her husband in 1043 were exiled. As more and more people were sent to Coventry, in the same manner that the Russians now send people to Siberia, some unique and ironic things took form,” he wrote.

“Not only were the inhabitants of Coventry the only people in all of England who could govern themselves and settle their differences without the necessity of a police force and courts, but such undesirables by 1307 had erected to the Glory of God and in the Name of God, the Cathedral of Saint Michael, commonly called Coventry Cathedral, one of the most magnificent structures of its type found anywhere in the world.”

“The entire central portion of Coventry was destroyed in an air raid in November, 1940. The ruins of the old cathedral remain as a stark reminder of the ugliness of war, hate, strife and discord among men.”

“The above-described chair in my home is fraught with meaning, symbolism and significance.”

Gainesville was Councille Blye’s Coventry.

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