Something happened here

Not to make anybody feel uncomfortable or anything. But this is Black History Month, and Gainesville and the University of Florida played front and center roles on the stage of the civil rights movement.

What happened? Best get yourself downtown and visit the Matheson History Museum and take in its newest exhibit: We’re Tired Of Asking: Black Thursday and Civil Rights at the University of Florida.

It’s fascinating stuff.

What was UF President Stephen C. O’Connell thinking? America was on the march and the winds of change swirled all around him.

But O’Connell was old school. In his mind, UF remained that idyllic place of his student days, when freshmen still wore traditional beanies.

Before he became UF president, as a Florida Supreme Court Justice, O’Connell resisted desegregating his beloved university.

Inevitably, the quest for equal rights would spread off campus as well. Soon there were demonstrations outside the old College Inn and downtown’s Woolworth’s over their refusal to serve Blacks.

And the Gainesville Women For Equal Rights would play a pivotal role in dragging the city, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 20th Century. (Extra points if you can spot some still-familiar faces in this photo).

Meanwhile the school board decided to close the all Black Lincoln High School in order to desegregate GHS.

So what was all the fuss about on campus? Consider that one fraternity was still holding Confederate-style “Plantation Balls.”

And O’Connell was in no mood to talk things over with Black students who had only recently won the right to even enroll at UF.

This cartoon by Alligator alum Bill Day aptly summed up O’Connell’s mindset.

And outside Tigert Hall, students were growing restless and impatient.

Until, inevitably, Black Thursday would explode.

There is a reason why, to this day, students are still campaigning to remove O’Connell’s name from UF buildings.

Still, out of the turmoil, change did arise. The Institute of Black Culture was founded, and it remains a force for equality to this day.

And the struggle continues.

“It is really an interesting period we’re living through, where discussion of this kind is really being restricted,” Matheson director Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney told me. “One of the benefits we have, being an independent non-profit, is that we’re not subject to things coming down from higher levels.”

Seriously, you ought to see what’s going on at The Matheson.

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