The namesakes of some of UF’s most iconic buildings undermine the school’s stated commitment to diversity.
The J. Wayne Reitz Union is a pristine and expensive-looking building—it should be, as the building reopened in 2016 after over $70 million in renovations.
Inside, its luxury is even more apparent. Commemorations to UF’s noteworthy and rich alumni, including the building’s namesake, Julius Wayne Reitz, fill its bright corridors. On a wall near the main elevator, Reitz’s contributions to the university are lauded.
A quote from Reitz reads, “The union will continue to perform the function as the focal point of many and diverse community activities.”
As home to the offices of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, the union meets this function.
At UF, Reitz’s history of homophobia is no secret. In 1958, the year of UF’s integration, Reitz fired at least 15 faculty members and expelled 50 students in cooperation with the Johns Committee, a state legislative witch hunt targeting the LGBT community.
Reitz is not the sole commemorated figure to boast hateful views. Out of all the named facilities on UF’s campus, 16 of 115—about 14 percent—have namesakes who expressed or acted on views of racism, homophobia, sexism or deliberate environmental neglect, according to The Fine Print’s research.
Stephen C. O’Connell, the namesake of the over $64-million O’Connell Center, has a comparably egregious history of racism. In 1971, he arrested and threatened to expel 66 students advocating for the creation of a black cultural center for conducting a sit-in in Tigert Hall.
UF also honors George A. Smathers and Henry H. Buckman, with Buckman Hall and the George A. Smathers libraries. Buckman authored the Buckman Act, a 1905 law segregating Florida’s colleges by race and gender. Smathers was one of 101 politicians who signed the Southern Manifesto, a document condemning the racial integration of schools following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Ben Hill Griffin, the namesake of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, lobbied to develop Florida Gulf Coast University on one of the few remaining Florida panther habitats. In 1996, Robert Marston, the namesake of Marston Science Library, participated in a legal battle to prevent women from attending a Virginia military school.
The list goes on.
The case of namesakes relates to a greater issue plaguing campuses nationwide—a lack of institutionalized inclusivity.
“For those students and non-students who know about these historical figures and who have prejudicial ideas themselves, or who are willing to take part in racist acts against students of color, having names of buildings of people who engaged in these types of actions or who have these types of ideas only emboldens these types of people.”
While namesakes are not the center of this issue, they contribute to it by representing prejudicial views in the community, said Ibram X. Kendi, a former assistant professor of history at UF and the founding director of Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University.
“To me it’s not a more important issue than diversifying the student body, than diversifying the faculty body, than ensuring that students of color feel safe on campus, than ensuring that we have a diverse staff,” he said.
Kendi’s thoughts echo concern over hateful events on UF’s campus. In February, the sign for Walker Hall, which houses the African American Studies department and the Center for Jewish Studies, was uprooted. In April, a man trespassed in Walker Hall and harassed employees. Students have found racial epithets written in campus facilities.
“For those students and non-students who know about these historical figures and who have prejudicial ideas themselves, or who are willing to take part in racist acts against students of color, having names of buildings of people who engaged in these types of actions or who have these types of ideas only emboldens these types of people,” Kendi said.
How should UF address these namesakes? Kendi said the university must choose between acting out against prejudice or ensuring its lines of funding are secure, as many of these figures contributed to the university financially.
Stephen Noll, master lecturer in UF’s history department, said beyond the question of changing names is the matter of determining which names should be changed.
“I think what we have to do is certainly look at the totality of people’s action and use these things as a teachable moment,” Noll said.
Kendi said UF should be honest about its reasons for keeping building names. It’s not about a teaching moment; that’s an excuse, he said. It’s really about money.
“I think the university should be able to say ‘Yes, these people did certain things, but at the same time, they donated money,” Kendi said.
In 2012, Ford Dwyer, a UF law graduate and former UF student senator, proposed a referendum on the fall student ballot to change the Reitz Union’s name.
Dwyer said reading UF’s whitewashed version of Reitz’s history moved him to push for the change. He used his connections with leaders of UF’s multicultural and diversity student organizations and role as leader of the Student Party, one of two campus parties at the time, to advance his mission.
“I just got the feeling that they were lying to people, and that’s what I got so offended by,” Dwyer said. “I wanted to correct the legacy.”
“Even more important [is] for people to be willing to admit their ideas are racist.“
Reitz’s proposed alternative was Virgil Hawkins, who challenged his denial of admission based on race in 1950 and laid the foundation for UF’s racial integration.
But Student Government was not receptive. While the UF Supreme Court initially approved the language in his referendum, which gave students historical context about Reitz and Hawkins, opposition from student government pushed the court to reconvene. The court stripped the amendment of context, leaving students who were otherwise unaware of Reitz’s and Hawkins’ histories in the dark about why the measure was on the ballot at all.
“At the time a lot of the people in student government were really conservative,” Dwyer said. “They didn’t like the idea of changing the name from who they thought was an honorable man in their opinion to a civil rights leader, so that to them was a very radical move.”
Ultimately, the referendum failed when support from the multicultural organizations collapsed after the head of the student government budget committee threatened to defund their organizations, Dwyer said.
Dwyer said that beyond changing names, UF should recognize its history and honor both Virgil Hawkins and those victimized by the Johns Committee.
“Some of them harmed people, and the school needs to be honest about that,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer said that UF’s role as the flagship university in the state causes the actions and views of the university community have a larger impact on society.
“How we look at tradition and the reverence that we show toward certain historical figures does matter, and we’re teaching a whole generation of kids right and wrong,” Dwyer said.
When considering the conflict between protecting its funding and limiting hate on campus, UF must address the greater issue of insufficient inclusivity.
“What to me is most important is for…the University of Florida to provide avenues for discussion and debate,” Kendi said. “But even more important [is] for people to be willing to admit their ideas are racist.” •