Integration: 50 years ago, FSU changed forever
It was a decade of countless firsts at Florida State University. From 1962, when the first black students enrolled at FSU, through 1972, when the university had crowned its first black homecoming queen, the campus culture was forever changed.
Diversity is taken for granted today at FSU, where Hispanic students, the largest ethnic minority, number 5,560, and the 3,775 African-American students represent more than 9 percent of the population.
But it wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago, until the Fall 1962 semester, FSU was an all-white institution. As the university prepares to celebrate its 50-year anniversary as an integrated institution later this week, it is important to remember the trailblazers who made it happen, the challenges they faced and the many firsts that took place during a decade of change.
It’s noteworthy that FSU — and Tallahassee — endured what Fred Flowers, a local attorney who was the first African-American student-athlete at FSU, describes as “this thing called integration,” in relative tranquility.
It wasn’t all love and peace and understanding. There were growing pains and ugly moments. In 1996, then-FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte publicly apologized to Jackie Dupont Walker, a social work major who enrolled in 1963, for the way she was treated during her time on campus.
But compared to public universities in neighboring states, FSU was a model of civility. Two people were killed during protests when James Meredith broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi in 1962; Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway in defiance of Alabama’s first black students in 1963; and a federal judge was required to oversee and protect the first black students at the University of Georgia in 1961.
“It sets FSU apart from any other institution in the country,” Flowers said.
Three of FSU’s firsts are impossible to miss on the university’s campus. The first black student, Maxwell Courtney, the baseball player Flowers and his younger sister, Doby, the first black homecoming queen, are memorialized in the Integration statue unveiled in 2004 at Woodward Avenue Plaza next to the student union. Their stories, however, are nowhere near as neat and clean as a simple statue.
To watch the 2004 unveiling of the Integration statue plus oral histories recorded at the event, click here.
The first students
Courtney is commonly considered the lone black student at FSU when the precocious 16-year-old Tallahassee native enrolled in August 1962. But that account overlooks Maxine Thurston, a 24-year-old African-American graduate student in the school of social work who also started at FSU that fall.
Courtney, a math major who attended segregated Lincoln High School, graduated in 1965 at age 19 and left Tallahassee for the University of Maryland. Not much is known about his adult years; Courtney drowned in 1975 somewhere in the Maryland area.
Courtney and Thurston never met one another. Thurston, a native of Fernandina Beach who graduated from Indiana University, had worked for two years in the state’s Department of Public Welfare office in Gainesville before enrolling at FSU.
She was an intriguing presence to the two black females who entered FSU in 1963. Thurston drove around town in a shiny Corvette, a graduation present from her parents, and lived on her own off campus.
Today she is the president of the Thurston Group, a Miami-based consulting firm, and her last name is Thurston Fisher. She remains connected to the university through the FSU Foundation, and she understands why she is never mentioned when FSU talks about its first black students.
“I think because the professional schools tend to be a little more isolated, you’re much more protected,” she said. “I think the experiences of the undergraduates are much more reflective of what life really was then.”
Like Courtney, the next three African-American undergraduates to enroll at FSU (Carmena Greene and Jackie Dupont, 1963, and Ronald Williams, 1964) were Tallahassee natives who lived at home while they were students at FSU. The residence halls would not be integrated until 1965.
Unlike Courtney, Greene, Dupont and Williams all attended Florida A&M University High School. But like Courtney, each did not stay in Tallahassee too long after getting their degrees.
“It was expected we would go to FAMU, but I wanted to apply and see if I got accepted. For the benefit of others who would come after me, I could not not go. I felt like a pioneer,” said Greene, now Carmena Greene Bostic, a longtime Miami resident who retired from IBM in 1996 and continues to work as a school teacher.
Greene, a Spanish major at FSU, says she was embraced by the modern languages department while Dupont felt ostracized in the school of social work.
Dupont, daughter of local civil-rights leader the late Rev. King Solomon Dupont, vividly remembers classmates moving away from her when she took a seat — or evacuating a hallway if they saw her coming.
“All of my friends were at FAMU. I was across town where I wasn’t wanted, where I wasn’t welcome,” said Dupont, today Dupont Walker and a Los Angeles resident.
“We were very conscious of blazing a trail,” she added. “We probably tolerated more insults than we would have otherwise. We realized we were doing it for those who would come behind us.”
Dupont wanted nothing to do with FSU by the time she graduated in 1966, and did not set foot on the campus again for 30 years. She returned after being invited to a social work reunion in 1996, which was when D’Alemberte apologized to her and invited her to the president’s box to watch a football game. It was her first time at an FSU game.
Wllliams, a physics professor at FAMU since 1992, did not want to go into much detail when asked about his experiences at FSU.
“It was challenging, very challenging. Let me sum it up that way. It never got too hard to handle,” he said. “Somebody had to be first, second, third, fourth. It was just a fact of life.”
Williams has not maintained a formal relationship with the university and is not a dues-paying member of FSU’s Black Alumni Association, but he said he has attended several of the group’s events.
The first dorm residents
John Marks had no idea what he was getting himself into when he enrolled at FSU in 1965, leaving his Miami home to live in Smith Hall. His roommate was Andy Robinson, one of four other black students breaking the color barrier in FSU’s residence halls. The other two males were paired together in Kellum Hall.
It was a trying first semester for Marks, Tallahassee’s mayor since 2002. He did not feel welcome. He does not believe the administration was fully committed to supporting the few black students on campus.
One day he and Robinson returned to their dorm to find the N-word defacing the door to their room, along with the words “Go home.”
“There were some incidents that gave me pause for concern,” Marks remembered.
One, in particular, took place on nearby West Tennessee Street where Marks encountered what he described as “Old South Day.” FSU fraternity members walked down the middle of the street dressed in Confederate uniforms, overseeing three black men in slave-type clothing.
“That was a shocker. I will never forget that,” Marks said.
He pleaded with his parents to let him transfer after his first semester. They convinced him to finish the year. He would meet Jane Awkard, a day student whom he would marry in 1969. A business school major, he would go on to attend law school at FSU.
As an undergraduate, Marks helped start the first black fraternity at FSU and became a member of the Black Student Union, started in 1967. He interacted with students at FAMU, where his parents had attended college.
“As more (black) students came, it got better,” he said. “The last two years I had a great time.”
One African-American woman, Sandy Gaines, moved into a dorm the same year as Marks and three other young men. They would take turns walking her back to her dorm, he said, not wanting Gaines to have to cross campus on her own.
If the administration was not visibly supporting the first black students at FSU, the black men and women with the food service, janitorial and maintenance staffs were. Greene, Dupont and others recall the warm smiles and gentle words of support they received from the support staff on campus.
The first athlete
Fred Flowers was a talented student at Lincoln High and a standout baseball player, a pitcher with a sneaky fastball who turned down an offer to play professionally in order to come to FSU.
In 1965, when he accepted a combined athletic and academic scholarship from FSU, he became the school’s first black student-athlete.
This was before freshmen were eligible to play on varsity teams, and Flowers flourished on the Seminoles’ freshman team. But Flowers and Fred Hatfield, the varsity coach, didn’t see eye to eye. Hatfield had no intention of putting Flowers on the mound, Flowers said, and insisted that the speedy athlete find a place in the outfield.
Flowers felt insulted and left the team by the end of his sophomore year, his intercollegiate athletic career cut short.
He prefers to focus on the positive as FSU prepares to celebrate its history later this week. He is both “humbled” and “overwhelmed” to be one of three FSU students featured in the Integration statue.
“I think sports was a major turning point that led to acceptance of African-Americans,” Flowers said.
One year after Flowers entered FSU, in 1966, Lenny Hall became the first black basketball player recruited at FSU, followed two years later by Calvin Patterson in football. (See Gerald Ensley’s column, Opinion / Page 1)
The first homecoming queen
Doby Flowers, 18 months younger than Fred, today manages her brother’s law firm. She spent more than two decades in Boston and New York, successfully taking on high-profile positions under iconic mayors Kevin White and Ed Koch, before returning to Florida in the late 1990s.
Like her older brother, Flowers lived at home while attending FSU. But unlike Fred, Doby was more determined to see FSU do better by its black students. Against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, she took part in sit-ins in the president’s office in Westcott. She agreed to be the Black Student Union candidate for homecoming queen because she was eager to make a statement.
“We didn’t see it as a beauty contest. We saw it as a political movement,” she said of her 1970 victory. “We were very politically motivated as to why we were doing it.”
The BSU had counters on hand to ensure that votes for Flowers were recorded accurately. Eric Barron, FSU’s president since 2010, was a sophomore at FSU when Flowers was on the ballot. He remembers voting for her, he said, because he too wanted to make a statement. It’s the only homecoming election he remembers voting in.
Flowers was crowned at PowWow, but unlike previous FSU Homecoming queens, she was not invited to attend out-of-town football games as a representative of the university. And unlike her predecessors, Flowers did not receive the traditional kiss on the cheek from the president when she was recognized at halftime of that day’s football game.
Stanley Marshall, an FSU professor who succeeded John Champion as FSU’s president in 1969 (Gordon Blackwell, 1960-65, was FSU’s president when the first black students were admitted), recalls his moment of confusion during Flowers’ coronation as if it happened last week.
“I have a distinct memory of crowning Doby. I debated, ‘Do I kiss her now?’ I took the cowardly way out.
“I didn’t want to see myself on the cover of Florida newspapers the next day. I’ve chided myself ever since,” Marshall said. “I was fearful that the media and some of the public would say Marshall is moving too fast. There were some critics who might have said he kissed that Negro girl — we said Negro in those days. It was hard to determine what was the right course of action.”
For the record, Flowers and Marshall have become good friends.
“Whether someone kissed me or not wasn’t the issue,” Flowers said. “For me, the wall, the barrier, had been broken. Everything else was irrelevant.”
‘Still much work to be done’
FSU hired its first African-American faculty member, nursing instructor Tanya Harris, in 1968. James Gant, the first African-American dean, was hired to lead the College of Education in 1974.
Marshall may have made the most important hire in 1972, when he lured Harvard-educated Freddie Groomes away from FAMU to be executive assistant to the president for ethnic minorities, women and physically disabled students. Groomes, a champion for her constituents, would hold that position for 31 years and for another four FSU presidents after Marshall. Marshall credits her with helping FSU grow the number of black students.
“I think I experienced a period of opposition or confusion,” Groomes (Groomes-McLendon today) said. “People didn’t understand the advantage of having the increased numbers of ethnic minorities and women. You had to be a little assertive. People had to be held accountable, and that was one of the key things.
“It was a great opportunity to make a difference, and I think we made a difference,” she added.
Shauna Smith, a teacher at Tallahassee Community College, started at FSU in 1972, the same year Groomes arrived. She does not remember having any fellow black students in her classes as a freshman or sophomore, but by the time she had earned a master’s degree in 1978 she was aware of the increased numbers of African-American students on campus.
“There seemed to be a conscious effort to make things more diverse while I was a student at FSU,” Smith said.
Groomes said she pushed to add more diversity among the ranks of the administration and faculty. The late Bobby Leach, named vice president of student affairs in 1978, became the highest-ranking African-American at FSU.
Today, however, FSU President Eric Barron oversees a leadership team without a black vice president. The lone black dean, Yaw Yeboah, is a native of Africa who was hired recently at the College of Engineering, a joint venture with FAMU. He is not scheduled to start his new job until July 1.
Barron said he makes a point or telling headhunters that FSU expects to see a diverse pool of candidates when filling positions at all levels of the faculty and administration.
“In my mind, this is an area where we always have to be paying attention,” Barron said. “Our mission is never accomplished. There’s still plenty of work to be done.”