Virgil Hawkins never reached the promised land in his attempt to gain admission to the University of Florida law school, but he was honored Wednesday as a trailblazer in the fight to open the school’s doors to minority students.
UF’s Levin College of Law celebrated the work of Hawkins and other pioneers in its Constitution Day observance Wednesday as it marked the 50th anniversary of integration at Florida’s flagship university, where more than 12,000 Blacks have graduated as part of his legacy.
Hawkins waged a nine-year legal battle to attend Florida’s law school and included five trips to the Florida Supreme Court and four trips through the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hawkins, who died in 1988 at the age of 81, never was able to attend the University of Florida. As part of an agreement to desegregate the state’s universities in 1958, Hawkins agreed to withdraw his application to attend the UF Law School.
“Mr. Hawkins fought a battle he never planned to fight,” said Harley Herman, a UF law graduate and founder of the Virgil Hawkins Foundation. “Virgil Hawkins never expected to be the Rosa Parks of the state of Florida, nor did he expect his quest for admission to become Fort Sumter in a second civil war.”
Hawkins’ niece, Harriet Livingston, said her uncle was a trailblazer who suffered so that others could attend public universities.
“We began to see impossibilities turn into possibilities and possibilities turn into realities,” she said.
As a result of Hawkins’ fight, George Starke became the first Black student admitted to the University of Florida’s law school on Sept. 15, 1958. A plaque noting his accomplishments was unveiled Wednesday.
Starke discussed being shadowed by two state troopers while attending class, receiving angry phone calls and letters, and being told to be careful because of Ku Klux Klan activities.
U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle, the first Black student to graduate as an undergraduate, and the second to graduate from the law school, noted that his successes were the result of Hawkins and other pioneers who paved the way.
This year, 25.4 percent of the law school students were minority students, with 5.9 percent Black; 8.6 percent Asian; 10.6 percent Hispanic, and half of one percent Native Americans. Since Starke was admitted, 850 Black students have graduated from the law school.
Hawkins, a teacher at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, first applied to the UF Law School in 1949. He met all the requirements, except one: He wasn’t white.
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that the nation’s public schools should be integrated, the Florida Supreme Court still refused to admit Hawkins.
Eventually, the court relented and allowed the state’s schools to be integrated with the caveat that Hawkins not be admitted to the UF Law School.
Hawkins, although disappointed, agreed. He moved to Boston, where he obtained a law degree from the New England College of Law.
Hawkins returned to Florida, but his efforts to practice law were thwarted by The Florida Bar, which refused to allow him to take the bar exam, since his degree was from an unaccredited university.
He never gave up his dream of practicing law and in 1976, the state Supreme Court ruled that Hawkins should be admitted to the Bar. He opened his practice at age 70 in Leesburg in Lake County.
Hawkins resigned from the bar in 1985 after a complaint was filed against him alleging incompetence and misuse of client moneys.
“When I get to heaven, I want to be a member of the Florida Bar,” he told the Supreme Court.
Hawkins was reinstated to the Bar in 1988 shortly after his death.
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