Leesburg pays ‘long overdue’ honor to civil rights pioneer Virgil Hawkins – Orlando Sentinel


Nearly 35 years after the death of Virgil D. Hawkins, the city of Leesburg has marked his former law firm as a historic site.

The sidewalk plaque installed last week along North Second Street near Market Street in the city’s downtown describes the black pioneer, who died in 1988 at the age of 81, as a “defender of civil rights activist who fought to end segregation at the University of Florida Law School. ”

“It’s probably something long overdue,” City Commissioner John Christian said of the city’s recognition.

Christian, 50, who is black and grew up in Leesburg, said he never heard of Hawkins at school.

“To be like he came from the Okahumpka-Leesburg area, our area, and to have done something as monumental as he did – desegregate Florida’s higher education system – Virgil Hawkins should be someone who we talk about like we talk about other civil rights icons,” he said.

In 1949, Hawkins applied for admission to UF Law School. He fulfilled all the conditions except one. He was not white.

Rather than admit a black student to UF law school, the Florida Board of Control, predecessor to the Florida Board of Regents that governs the state university system, offered to pay Hawkins to attend a law school outside the state of his choice. .

Hawkins, assisted by future United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, sued.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled against him, relying on the “separate but equal” doctrine and the state’s promise to establish a law school at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to accommodate Hawkins and other non-whites who sought a career in law.

Hawkins appealed, and in 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to “expedited admission” to UF.

Florida ignored the order.

Governor LeRoy Collins, while seeking re-election in 1956, along with his cabinet, pledged to “resist by all legal means the immediate admission of a Negro to the University of Florida”.

Hawkins has appealed his rejection four times to the country’s High Court, repeatedly winning decisions that have been ignored.

Florida Supreme Court Justice William Glenn Terrell wrote opinions supporting segregation while rejecting Hawkins’ appeals. In one, to illustrate the historical ubiquity of the practice, he pointed out: “Hitler practiced it in his Germany…”

The state high court then ruled that Hawkins could be admitted to UF if he could prove that “his admission can be accomplished without causing great public harm.”

According to The Crisis, an NAACP publication, Richard McFarlain, a graduate of Rollins College and head of the Florida bar, criticized the decision years later for placing an impossible burden on Hawkins.

“Hawkins no longer had to prove he was white,” he wrote. “He simply had to prove that the Ku Klux Klan and other assorted yahoos would not burn down Gainesville in order to obtain the benefits of the United States Supreme Court order and the equal protection of the law.”

Hawkins ended his nine-year legal fight in 1958 when he withdrew his application to UF law school in exchange for the university’s desegregation of its graduate and professional schools.

In a 2008 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, then-U.S. District Judge Stephan Pierre Mickle, the second black student to earn a law degree from UF’s College of Law, praised Hawkins’ determination. . “Virgil Hawkins led the way,” said the judge, who died in 2021.

Over the years, Hawkins’ sacrifices and struggles have been recognized and honored.

UF now has a page dedicated to him on its College of Law website.

The university celebrated the 50th anniversary of integration in 2008 and invited his family.

Harley Herman, a Florida attorney for more than 40 years, had urged Leesburg to also honor Hawkins.

“When you look at everything that happened to him, most of us would have ended up either very bitter or mentally broken, unable to do anything. But he wasn’t broken,” Herman recalled. “He hoped to be able to inspire the next generation. That was pretty much his mission in the end.

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Although he gave up his fight to enroll in UF, Hawkins refused to give up his dream of being a lawyer. He earned a law degree from the New England School of Law in 1964, paying his way by doing menial jobs, including cleaning the washrooms of the all-white Harvard Club.

Back in Florida, he received another blow.

He was unable to take the bar exam because the New England school was not accredited by the American Bar Association.

In 1977, at age 70, Hawkins was finally admitted to the practice of law by a vote of the Florida Supreme Court, which then had a black judge on the panel, Joseph Hatchet.

Hawkins’ loved ones also expressed their gratitude for the city’s honor.

“Today the family of Virgil Darnell Hawkins says to the beautiful lakeside town of Leesburg – our home and yours – ‘Thank you,’ for recognizing the office space once occupied by the most southern patient and the first civil rights pioneer in the South,” a niece, Harriet Livingston, said at the dedication service.

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