A petition started by a University of Florida graduate student to change the name of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center has picked up steam this week. As of Thursday, the petition has more than 6,100 signatures.
Florida’s basketball arena recently received a corporate sponsor name after a $64.5 million dollar renovation that was completed in 2016. However, the official name is in honor of former UF President (1967-73), Stephen C. O’Connell.
“Stephen C. O’Connell was a well-known segregationist,” starter of the petition, Anthony Rojas wrote. “In 1959, he was a member of the majority on the Florida Supreme Court when it denied entrance to a Black man seeking admission to UF on the grounds that the applicant was “a potential disruptive influence.” In 1971, UF President O’Connell arrested and threatened to expel 66 Black students who organized a sit-in at Tigert Hall as an expression of discontent with university policies that did not encourage Black student enrollment or the employment of Black faculty members. The students were later denied amnesty for their actions and the event is remembered in UF History as “Black Thursday.” (Stephen C. O’Connell Center)
The University of Florida was desegregated in 1958 but by 1971 there were only 343 black students in attendance. On April 15, 1971, the Black Student Union organized a sit-in. As groups of protestors made their way to O’Connell’s office with a list of demands, O’Connell refused to meet with them. The sit-in resulted in the arrest of 66 black students, 60 of whom were placed on academic probation. O’Connell refused to grant them amnesty on the grounds that doing so would, “be admitting that the sit-in in my office was proper conduct now and in the future.” That decision resulted in 123 black students and two black faculty leaving the university.
Speaking with the New York Times shortly after “Black Thursday,” O’Connell seemed to acknowledge the error of his ways.
“All of us have changed over the years and I am no longer a segregationist,” O’Connell told the New York Times on April 18, 1971.
That spring, O’Connell approved three new major programs for African-American Students. The university also initiated the Institute of Black Culture (IBC) in the fall of 1972.
Rojas’ petition calls on UF President Kent Fuchs to “recognize the mistakes of the past and take this necessary step in giving Black students the justice and respect that has been withheld from them for more than 60 years on our campus.”
Fuchs released a video on May 29th condemning racism not only on his campus but nationwide. In that video Fuchs states that there has never been a “more urgent need to come together against racism and hate in the support of justice.”
Fuchs and the university have not responded to this current petition, but it continues to collect signatures as it heads towards a goal of 7,500.