Hundreds of students were gassed and dozens arrested in one of the bleakest days in UF’s history. But their activism was also a turning point in campus social justice and equality.
The report below is by witness Betty Stewart-Fullwood (BA ’72, MA ’74, PhD ’82) in her 2003 book “African Americans at the University of Florida,” co-written with Kevin McCarthy.
It seemed like such a small spark, but before the day was over, the whole university was engulfed in the flames.
— The Florida Alligator, April 1971 —
On April 15, 1971, 50 Black students marched from the Plaza of the Americas to Tigert Hall and entered, uninvited, UF President Stephen O’Connell’s office to present a list of demands. It wasn’t the first time the demands had been presented to O’Connell. Black students had been trying to get action on them for over 18 months.
March 26, 2021
The students were asked to leave, and did so without incident. A larger, more vocal group appeared later and only left when threatened with suspension. Undeterred, a third, even larger and more determined group arrived, along with white supporters.
O’Connell, however, again refused to meet. And when the students wouldn’t leave his office on what has come to be known as Black Thursday, more than 60 were arrested and charged with trespassing. Three policemen were injured. Several hundred students were gassed. Property was damaged.
Less than two weeks later, on April 27 — following protest marches — 123 Black students withdrew from the university. Almost two months later, on June 14, a hearing was held for those who had been arrested. The 30 who changed their pleas from innocent to no contest were placed on 90-day probation, while charges were dropped against all the other students who had been arrested.
At the end of the episode, along with the students who had withdrawn, two faculty members had resigned, and Roy Mitchell — UF’s coordinator for minority affairs and first Black administrator — had been fired. On the positive side, the students’ demands (see image, right) had finally been heard. The position of coordinator of minority affairs was upgraded to assistant dean for student development and assigned to work with minorities, counsel students and serve as acting director of the Institute of Black Culture. One of that person’s main jobs was to travel around Florida to recruit Black students in junior colleges and high schools. There was also an effort to hire more Black faculty and staff members — with some success.
Years later, in 1975, new UF President Robert Marston proposed naming the student center after O’Connell. Some Black students objected, pointing to 1971’s Black Thursday events. Despite those protests, the building was named the Stephen C. O’Connell Student Activities Center.