History and the people who make it: David Horne

David Horne [H], co-founder of the UF Black Student Union, was interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in November, 2017.

This is the 52nd in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection. Interpolations in {curly brackets} by Iguana.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

M: You were here during the founding of the Black Student Union. What led up to founding it?

H: My colleagues, and I, kept up with what was going on elsewhere in terms of Cornell students trying to get the Cornell administration to accept a Black Studies department, and Columbia, and San Francisco State; combating this tendency to teach all history was basically White history, the history of Western civilization. And that old adage that African history should not be taught because Africa was darkness, and darkness could not be history. We decided that at UF we had enough of a student population to have a Black Student Union. So we just formed one. About ten of us got together to fill out the application to be a student organization.

There were no Black faculty at the time. So we got no help from the faculty per se, although there were faculty members who were sympathetic. When we asked for advice, they were always willing to provide it. Mainly, they were in the social sciences and humanities areas. We had some anthropology teachers, a number in the English department, and history and psychology.

We may have had twenty, twenty-five students. Our numbers always got bigger whenever we were going to have a party. The numbers always got smaller once we were going to do some demonstration or activist activity. 

We adopted a moderate activism that we would ask for inclusion of African American faculty and we would ask for access to student facilities like any other student organization. 

We would try to change some of what was going on in history and anthropological classes about African American culture. 

A number of students, their parents were not interested in them involved in any radical activity. Parents had to sacrifice a lot to pay for sending their students to the university. We understood the reluctance of parents to allow their students to get involved in stuff that seemed to call negative attention on them by the administration. 

Let’s let the BSU call the party. When students would show up, and they always would, we’d go ahead and allow regular party for about forty-five minutes to an hour, and then we’d cut the lights on, lock the door, turn the music off. Whatever activity we had planned, we would basically start assigning people, this is when to show up, this is what to do. This is not going to get you in academic trouble. Nobody is going to be kicking you out. We would carefully lay out why we were doing what we doing and what kind of help we needed. 

Since we had a captive audience, they listened, and after about an hour of political education, I guess you would call it, then we’d cut the music back on, and let people go back and party. It became a very effective tactic. We got a lot done. We got to lay out we need to not only get more Black faculty, we need to be involved in any discussion that departments have about bringing Black faculty, and letting them make a presentation, and make sure we show up. They cannot show up to an empty audience. And, it worked. 

We wanted a Black Studies department just as they had in San Francisco State, Cornell, et cetera. 

That did not go too well at first. But being students ourselves, having our own exams and classwork, we were always sympathetic to students saying we can’t get involved, we cannot jeopardize our standing at the university, we don’t want to have teachers turn against us, we don’t want to be in the newspaper. God! If I’m in the newspaper protesting for Black anything my parents are going to yank me out of this place, so I gotta act like I got some common sense. 

We were very sympathetic to that but we were also very insistent that you demand or request our inclusion in the regular affairs of UF, that we had to be present. 

As Frederick Douglass said, there is no change, there is no progress without struggle. If you don’t make a demand, you’re not going to get anything to change. Some of our members were a lot more militant, they wanted to do more than just a protest in front of the administration building. Some of them wanted to break windows, stuff like that, so we always had to temper: we want to actually have something positive at the end of whatever action we take. And not have everyone kicked out or arrested. 

We did have a reading group. We very much liked Malcom X, James Baldwin, and Dr. King. We would discuss how those readings can be applied to where we were.

Most of what we did revolved around a core of about eight, ten people. We didn’t have a large population of African American students. Plus, we started working with members of the local community, particularly down in Fifth Avenue, trying to make sure we had positive ties so if we suggested a protest or some kind of physical activity, they would join us. And generally, they did. 

Some were FAMU students home for the weekend, some were denizens of Fifth Avenue, some were Santa Fe Community College students. Charles Chestnut was one of the strong, well-respected community leaders that we sought advice from, a community mentor for us. And T.A. Wright, too. 

M: Malcom X, Baldwin, Dr. King, some people today, especially White people, try to pit them against each other as if you need to choose one over the other. Were there debates back then?

H: Absolutely. Malcom X seemed to be talking more about in your face, if we want to be respected of men, we have to stand up like men and women, we cannot always seek compromise, we have to sometimes be unbending. We have to be consistent, well read and prepared, ready to follow through and to win. 

Dr. King was much more of a pragmatic, church-based leader, who reminded us all of our parents. That generation of folks that said you must learn common sense, to be polite, and efficient in what you do. We all had very strong respect, not only for Dr. King and the CLC, but for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We really appreciated what John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael and that group were doing. 

So yeah, Malcom X was a great hero to us, but not the only one. And the idea that we should choose one over the other, we did not see it that way at all. We saw both men representing sections of how to respond to the situation that Black folk had to face every day.

We got Stokely Carmichael to come on campus. It was a fairly big attendance, because he was a Southern hero, having been the head of SNCC and being the strategist to create the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Alabama as the first all-Black political party in the area. 

The only people you were going to get a chance to vote for would be White folks. Even in Black areas of Alabama and Mississippi and South Carolina where you had 80 to 85 percent of the population being Black, you’re still not going to get a chance to elect anybody Black into office. Stokely Carmichael had also been in that Mississippi march at which he and Dr. King would compete in making speeches at every stop. It was great theater. After which he and Charles Hamilton wrote Black Power. So, having Stokely Carmichael there, it was great! There was a lot of student interest, a lot of discussion. 

We also tried to bring the Black Theater Movement. Having plays and performances was part of the whole consciousness raising process. We had a Black Theater group, I wouldn’t say a Black Theater. We did guerilla theater, and performances in high schools, junior high schools, and some at Santa Fe. The League of Blackness that we had in Gainesville often used theater performances, learning it as they went. 

We didn’t have anybody at UF from the Black community that was part of the theater department, either as student or faculty. So, yeah, untrained but very enthusiastic theater production. We would write our own scripts. We’d do poetry, and tunes. We did that Day of Absence play, by Doug Turner Ward. The thesis of the play was what would happen if African Americans suddenly disappeared. It was {a} very, very funny presentation.

M: Was there much push back from White faculty or administrators? 

H: Only when we did what was considered very radical stuff. When we started pushing about a Black Studies department, we got some pushback. I got a lot of pushback in the History Department because I was set on the idea that we had to change the way we were teaching American history. Why talk about Reconstruction without talking about Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction?

I got a lot of opposition by two or three history professors. One of them told me to get out of his class. I’d been invited in to talk about how do we bring more Black information into the teaching of American history and I guess he thought I was trying to take over his class. I took my papers, backed away from the lectern, walked out. His name was Dr. McMann {sp?}. I don’t remember everybody’s name but I remember him. As a teacher now, I can understand: How dare you come and challenge me in my own class? I hadn’t come in on my own, he’d invited me. He apparently thought I’d cross{ed} some kind of line, so he politely just told me you need to leave, we’ve had enough. I don’t think I was speaking more than ten minutes. I was supposed to have the whole class. I know I hadn’t done anything impolite. At the time I was a graduate student in the African Studies Program that Hunt Davis had helped to start. I was already teaching at Santa Fe, so it was not like I had never been in front of a classroom before.

M: Was there any difference in the campus climates between UF and Santa Fe in terms of what you could and couldn’t talk about?  

H: No, we were allowed to teach whatever we wanted, however we wanted. I was able to experiment and develop methodologies to get students reading, asking questions, wanting to do field work. When I introduced them to Rosewood they really got interested, because it was so close to Gainesville. One of my assignments as a research assistant for Hunt Davis, working on my master’s, was to go to the library and research certain topics. Looking at the history of Black-White relations in Florida I stumbled into that.

Ah, wow, was my main thought. Here was what seemed to be a valiant attempt at setting up a Black township, since there were certain people in Florida saying, no you can’t, you’re not allowed. Fine! We’ll just set up our own township, develop our own opportunities. That was not allowed. They burned everybody out. That fascinated me. I’d already heard about Black townships in Oklahoma, Boley, for example. I didn’t know about the Tulsa case until much later. But this had happened in Florida, right down the street. The Florida legislature eventually decided to pay a form of reparations to the {descendants} of those families harmed in Rosewood. Florida still remain{s} the only state that’s done that.

M: Can I ask about, they call it Black Thursday now, the day of the sit-in at the president’s office?

H: We had a very intense discussion about whether to go that far. Mr. {Roy} Mitchell had been sent over to try to convince us not to have that kind of public demonstration which might embarrass the school. 

We respected that he had to adhere to the administration’s point of view. Your job is to basically to keep the Negroes controlled. It’s okay for them to have a few meetings and a few parties but not anything else. So we had a very intense discussion about whether to take that next level. To go up to the president’s office and block them in, because that’s what they had done at Cornell, at San Francisco State. We wanted Florida to be part of that. 

Everybody in the BSU was not down for that. They figured — they knew, not just figured, that police would be there and people dragged out and arrested, their pictures … in the newspaper, and their parents would be coming up the next week to take them out of school because they would have wasted their money. 

We had to make sure we had allies on campus and in the community. We had a knockdown drag out over whether to do it, and who was going to do it. And, hey, it worked out. We got a lot of support from a lot of students. It was more than advocating more Black Studies on campus, a Black Studies center. You had other students saying we needed to include other issues of student concern that were not being listened to by the administration. So we ended up having a lot more student allies than we thought.

I got arrested right after the protest. I was gone before the tear gas. Once it got started, more students started showing up for different reasons. They were not all in favor of, or even aware, that we were pushing for a Black Studies program, a department, and more Black faculty members on campus. It was just a student protest, so they came to join that. When some of them started getting pretty loud, that was when the police came and tear gas and stuff. That wasn’t us. From what I was told later, the demonstration just kept increasing in size and people did not seem to be listening to the administration say, y’all need to go home now, this is over, you’ve made {your} point. When some students wanted to argue with the administrative representatives, things got out of hand. By that time they were just not demanding Black Studies, they had gone on to a larger agenda. But no, we never thought it was being co-opted. 

M: I have been told there were tanks on University Avenue at one point.

H: No, I don’t remember that. Tanks?! On University Avenue? I don’t think so, no. 

M: How did the BSU go about recruiting—

H: Nah. We didn’t. They just showed up. We had let it be known we were going to do it. We had put it in the student newspaper. We had mentioned in classes, we were going to protest at the president’s office, demanding some specific things about Black Studies and Black faculty. 

Anybody wanted to support us, hey, you’re welcome. So some other people showed up. It looked to be spontaneous to us but apparently some people had planned it. Some people came to be the opposition, to protect the sanctity of the administration building and that kind of thing. We didn’t get in any fights, but some people were yelling that no, we shouldn’t be there, this is not some Northern university {where} they were used to that kind of stuff. 

From what I was told, it was some of these oppositional folk who got loud and that’s when the police moved in. The reporting in the aftermath was generally negative. In thinking back, we decided those folk were sent there to stir something up, to make us look bad.

The BSU students that had been involved in demanding more Black access, more Black inclusion, the vast majority of them either got suspended, or kicked out, or their parents came and took them out. 

The first response was you must be punished, and we are not going to do what you demanded. I was a graduate student so they didn’t kick me out. But they kicked out a bunch of other folk.

M: So the undergrads —

H: Yeah, they got punished. I remember telling Mr. Mitchell, you know they {are going to} fire you, don’t you? They sent you over here to stop this student action. You didn’t stop us. {I} remember him smiling and saying, well, they might, but this won’t be the last job I have. I wasn’t hired to kiss their behind. I was hired to come and try to make a difference. And, hey, I think I did. I came and talked to y’all. And, once it became clear that you knew what you were doing and you were not interested in vandalism, I tried to stop y’all from doing it, y’all decided y’all were going to do it anyway? Hey, what could I do? If they fire me, they fire me. A very good man.

M: Do you remember the beginnings of the Institute of Black of Culture? 

H: I did not attend, that first day. I wasn’t at Gainesville at the time. We all smiled at hey, they got something done. Hopefully, the institute would work well and do something decent. The first director, we had been instrumental in getting him hired as a faculty member. So, we thought the institute would be in good hands. He had come to campus and made a very, very good, not just professional, but an entertaining presentation about African American culture and music, and art. We made sure he had a large audience. We were all rewarded, it was a very good presentation. As a group, we had sent in a recommendation that they hire him. I don’t know whether they paid any attention, but we definitely did that. We liked to write.

M: What do you remember about the beginnings of the African American Studies Program? 

H: It looked good on paper but we were concerned it did not look like it was going to have influence on the curriculum, on changing that Eurocentric viewpoint. Nothing in the master plan seemed like anything more than a meeting place, a vehicle to bring in some speakers, but we didn’t see it helping African American students.

M: Do you think the BSU and the students who participated saw the sit-ins as a success?

H: Yes, they did. There had been some sacrifices, a lot of intense discussions and courage on the part of some students to step out and get something done. In the end, yeah, that was the feeling, that we had actually gotten something done.  When people got kicked out, that’s not what they felt like, but the very next academic year, the president did everything we had asked him to do, just claimed that he had come up with it on his own. He didn’t give any credit to the students. But we knew.

Transcript of this interview to be posted at http://oral.history.ufl.edu sometime this summer. 

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