Illustrations by Samantha Schuyler

Illustrations by Samantha Schuyler

 

UF’s African American studies program was started in the wake of segregation’s end. Dr. Ronald Foreman, who began the program, kept it afloat through years of struggle–and now it is seeing success that may finally vault it into departmental status.

When John Johnson approached Dr. Ronald Foreman’s office on a late Monday afternoon in 1987, he knew what to expect. As usual, the beige sofa outside Foreman’s office was filled with University of Florida students perched like birds on a wire, waiting patiently to pick his brain.

Johnson knew Foreman’s designated office hours would end, but was confident that “Doc,” as his students affectionately called him, wouldn’t leave until everyone had their chance to confide. It was impossible to give adequate time to all the students who stuck around to see him, so Doc almost always stayed late.

Johnson took the last seat at the small, worn couch, sandwiching himself between a green-eyed blonde girl and a tall black boy with dreaded hair. Johnson watched as more students flocked to Foreman’s unmanned doorway, left with no choice but to lean against the couch’s armrests.

When it was Johnson’s turn, he passed through the door and into Doc’s office, his warm smile peeking through the towering stacks of books that filled the desk. A dictionary sat an arm-length away for easy perusal. Johnson knew that if he was unsure about the meaning of a word, Doc would simply slide the book across the table and tell him to look it up. That was just Doc’s style; he was a man of words.

“What can I do for you, John?” Foreman asked.

Foreman’s most recent assignment, an analysis of Albert Race’s novel “Racehoss: Big Emma’s Boy,” had left Johnson feeling perplexed. A short explanation cleared the fog. But after they finished, Johnson remained in the chair, tapping his foot. Foreman’s tie, neatly knotted as usual, had caught his attention.

“Doc, I really like your tie,” Johnson said.

Foreman thanked Johnson and told him that it was a gift from his wife, Ann. Johnson nodded, letting the silence widen. Finally, he started again, saying that he admired how pristine and small he made the knot, despite the tie’s shapeless knit material. He knew that if he wanted to look professional, knit was the way to go. But, he admitted to Doc, when he tried to tie a knot himself, it looked huge and clumsy and awkward.

Foreman didn’t hesitate. Despite the three other students waiting outside his door and the end of his office hours rapidly approaching, Foreman gently unknotted his tie. He started from the beginning.

The real trick, Foreman said, was to stick your pointer finger in the top front loop and pull it down very tight, which would help make the knot smaller and neater. He removed his tie and rested it on Johnson’s neck. It took Johnson a couple of tries, and a few corrections from Foreman, but he finally got it.

“In like Flynn!” Johnson exclaimed.

“That’s super, John,” Foreman said, laughing. Great job.”

As Johnson stood to leave, Foreman told him, as he told all his students when they parted ways: Take care.

As one of the first three African-American faculty members at the University of Florida, Foreman began at the school in 1970 with one mission: to spearhead the Afro-American studies program. He was committed to its prosperity, and he intended to see its success come hell or high water, with or without the resources it deserved.

The program lives on today, though Foreman passed away in November 2014. In recent years, it has grown from offering only two majors in 2012 to about 70 in 2015. But despite its rapid growth, the African-American studies program has yet to become a full-fledged department.

A memo written by Foreman in the 1970s, which was read aloud at his memorial service on Feb. 18., outlined his wishes for the future of the program, including achieving departmental status and an increase in the number of paid faculty positions.

“One of those goals was to create and fund six faculty positions for the African-American studies program,” his son, Everett Foreman, said. “When he retired in 2000 and even today in 2015, he would still be waiting for that.”

He was committed to its prosperity, and he intended to see its success come hell or high water, with or without the resources it deserved.

Under Sharon Austin, its current director and an associate professor of political science, the program has been expanding. During Foreman’s time as director, students who took courses in the program could only receive a program certificate. UF now allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree after declaring it as a major. In the last academic year, the program taught about 800 students. For the 2015-2016 semester cycle, it plans to reach over 1,000 students.

The obvious spike in enrollment has prompted Austin to submit a proposal to improve the program and finally elevate it to departmental status. She is currently working to hire three new faculty members, develop a graduate certificate in race and ethnicity and create a mentorship-training program that would provide individualized attention to students pursuing a research career in the field.

“We expected to have 50 majors during the fifth year we offered it, but already have more than that,” Austin said.  “We also have more majors than some departments that have offered majors for several years.”

Austin has discussed departmental status with faculty, affiliates and the advisory board. The proposal will highlight some of the recent accomplishments of the program and compare them to other departments in the college of liberal arts and sciences. It will be submitted for consideration no later than August 1.

But it all started with Doc.

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WhenForeman left Illinois State in 1970 and set his sights on Gainesville, the city was still smoldering in the wake of segregation. The Jim-Crow era racial tension, which had existed since before Reconstruction, was still part of daily life. It was only a few years before that black men and women were expected to step off the sidewalk when a white woman passed. Discrimination as a standard had started to dwindle, but the city could not escape the reality of the racially unbalanced infrastructure it was built on.

Over the 20th Century, Gainesville’s black community became centralized to a few different areas. When Foreman relocated his family, the majority of the black population was situated near the former all-black Lincoln High School in southeast Gainesville, east of Waldo Road and south of Northeast Eighth Avenue. According to Foreman’s son, Everett, black spaces were deemed “the other side of the tracks,” which also included Northwest Fifth Avenue and a third area near Depot Avenue called Porters Quarters. There was no designated black suburb.

Everett’s parents decided to find a place outside these areas, he said. But to do so, they had to seek help from UF faculty in order to find an apartment complex that would take them as tenants.

“Any black person coming into what was still a southern city — even given Gainesville’s more ‘liberal’ reputation — in 1970 to teach at an almost all-white university was taking a leap of faith,” he said.

Vivian Filer, a 76-year-old storyteller and civil rights activist, has lived in Gainesville’s east side her entire life. But Filer never saw the area as bad; it was her home.

“People there weren’t bad,” she said. “They just weren’t affluent.”

“Any black person coming into what was still a southern city — even given Gainesville’s more ‘liberal’ reputation — in 1970 to teach at an almost all-white university was taking a leap of faith,” he said.

Filer added that if drug trafficking was an issue in the east side, it was partly because people from the predominantly white north side would come to take part in it. The area’s negative reputation shouldn’t be attributed to the character of its residents, Filer said. It should be attributed to a system that disadvantaged an entire community. This sort of dynamic was widespread all over the south, Filer said.

“When I tell my story, it’s not just my story,” Filer said. “Its the story.”

When advocating for the area to a board of city commissioners, Filer had said, “We need to talk about the east side of town not as something that is going to be to be rehabilitated, because it was never habilitated in the first place.”

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The University of Florida had integrated by the ‘70s, but it still lacked an equal black presence. On April 26, 1971, black students occupied the office of the then UF President Stephen C. O’Connell, demanding more funding for the Black Cultural Center, respect for black faculty and the active recruitment of black students. The atmosphere of the time was riddled with arrests, protests and sit-ins, according to an article published in The Alligator on Feb. 26, 1997.

Though the program was in its infancy, Foreman took on the difficult and demanding role of director. Until he retired in 2000, Foreman spent 30 years juggling an underfunded, understaffed program, all while the university struggled with creating an equal campus for black students.

Despite these hurdles, Foreman managed to leave a lasting impact on his students. What set him apart was not his passion or wealth of knowledge, Johnson said. It was his openness with the young minds he adored, who were more important to him than anything else.

Many of Foreman’s students were the first in their families to attend a university. Often, they were disadvantaged by an educational system that had historically provided for white children first. It was understood that if you were in a black school you wouldn’t get to see the new, up-to-date books that the city used its tax money to order, Filer said. They would be going to the white schools.

“We never had books that were brand new,” Filer said. “Our books always had someone else’s name in them.”

Despite separate-but-equal schools being unconstitutional under the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the Supreme Court revisited Alachua County in 1970, claiming that the county’s public schools were “racially identifiable.”

That January, under order of the Supreme Court, all county public schools closed, only to reopen a week later, integrated. In the process, the city’s black high school, Lincoln High, was shut down. When the entire student body migrated to white schools,  there was a wide educational disparity. Not only had black students been receiving older materials, white students were required to take the SAT to qualify for white colleges and were taught a curriculum that would prepare them for it. Black students, on the other hand, were only required to take a 12th grade equivalency test to qualify for a black college.

“We threw black kids into white schools, and all of a sudden they were supposed to be equal,” Filer said. “We want for African-Americans to rise up to the level of white Americans, but without giving any catchup time.”

What set him apart was not his passion or wealth of knowledge, Johnson said. It was his openness with the young minds he adored, who were more important to him than anything else.

Since her elementary and high school days, Filer said she remembers teachers using their own money to buy supplies for even the most basic subjects. These teachers would go above the call of duty, Filer said, staying after school to answer questions or making house calls to show how much they genuinely cared about their students’ success.

The extra effort made all the difference, Filer said. It showed students that there was someone who believed they could accomplish anything.

Although Foreman’s primary goal was to expose his students to African-American art, history and culture, he often had to focus on assisting with fundamental academic skills. Because of the different expectations for students at all-black schools, he often had to first teach skills like how to study efficiently and write at a college level.

Foreman was also known for his ability to intertwine the essence of a southern gentleman into everything he did, and teaching was no exception. For example, a true southern gentleman like Ronald Foreman would never fail to respectfully remove his driver’s cap when he entered a room. He was always well groomed, Johnson recalled, parting his wavy hair to the left and keeping his gray-black beard neatly trimmed. Clad in a corduroy jacket, knit tie and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, Foreman was the picture of a university professor.

And he did not shy away from the hardheaded, troublemaking students. When some teachers would get frustrated, Foreman would respond to disruptions by offering students the chance to share what was on their minds. His wealth of knowledge was never used to belittle others; he never made people feel like they weren’t good enough. Instead, Foreman shared his intellectual riches, using them as tentacles to reach out and make a connection.

“He never made his students feel disrespected,” Johnson said. “That way of operating endeared everyone to him.”

“[It was] the confidence that he instilled in me and other kids like me,” Johnson added. “He said, ‘You’re good enough; you can make it.’”

Foreman taught in classrooms without air conditioning and maintained the program without a staff, relying on students and the secretary of his good friend and colleague Harry Shaw, the former associate dean of minority affairs, to assist him.

“He had an optimistic positive spirit, even when he was deep in the struggle,” Shaw said.

Foreman’s program was allocated little funding for supplies, and he seemed to be constantly arguing for the betterment of the program, Shaw said. First, it was to have an advanced typewriter, then a boombox, and an IBM Personal Computer, which the program did not receive until after the majority of other disciplines. The competition between infant programs at the time was fierce, and although the progress seemed to move slowly, Shaw and Johnson both said that Foreman never showed defeat, and maintained a sense of pride in the African-American studies program.

“I never had to think twice about joining the battle because he was earnest,” Shaw said. “His motives were just about as pure as you could get.”

“The great hope and the great effort was always to argue for why these programs should have a more prominent place and status, because the need for what it provided for African-American students,” Shaw said. “And for the the general university population, because African-American students weren’t the only ones who could benefit from what the program had to offer.”

In the classroom, Foreman went beyond African-American political histories and delved into artistic and cultural creations, showcasing musical styles of opera, blues, bluegrass and country. He was a connoisseur of art; he collected musical memorabilia, and his home was filled with paintings from famous masters and his students alike.

“The great hope and the great effort was always to argue for why these programs should have a more prominent place and status, because the need for what it provided for African-American students,” Shaw said.

He paired elegance with approachability and an elevated mindset with a down-to-earth disposition. His interests spread beyond academics, and when he slapped legendary blues singer Ma Rainey’s “Black Bottom” record on an old, boxy portable turntable, he closed his eyes and bobbed his head to the beat.

“On a more individual level, dad was able to expose students, primarily black but certainly encompassing students of all races, to areas in black music and literature beyond what was typically known or taught in public schools post-1970,” Everett said.

Johnson left Foreman’s office knowing how to tie a tie and much more, and he went on to become a senior analyst at the U.S. accountability office. He was Foreman’s student from 1987 until the day he passed in 2014. The two kept in contact even after he graduated, extending their friendship for over 30 years. Johnson said that he never stopped learning from Doc.

“You meet people in this world who make an impact on you, and it’s a blessing that you come into contact with them,” Johnson said. “I’m not the only one who feels that it was a blessing to meet someone like him.”

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