John Boardman: A Civil Rights Activist

In December 1956, John Boardman, a white PhD student in theoretical physics at Florida State University, invited three black international Florida A&M University students to an FSU International Students Club Christmas party on the FSU campus. The invitation came amidst bitter racial tensions in Tallahassee and the South.  That same month, a federal judge had ruled segregated transportation unconstitutional, ending both the Montgomery bus boycott and the Tallahassee bus boycott. Further, the Florida Board of Control, the governing body of the State University System of Florida, was ensnared in the national, and unrelenting, controversy surrounding the higher education integration suit filed by prospective black law student Virgil Hawkins in 1950.

From left to right: Reverend C.K. Steele, John Boardman, and Reverend J. Raymond Henderson of California at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, 1956 or 1957.

On January 26, 1957, FSU announced that Boardman would not be allowed to re-enroll at the University because he “violated the regulation of the University which provides that meetings may not be held on the campus in which the races are mixed. This regulation is in accordance with the Board’s long time policy . . . [Boardman] stated that he had no intention of abiding by any regulation of the Board of Control regarding racial tensions.” Not only had Boardman violated this rule, but he had also been actively participating in civil rights demonstrations around the city and continued to do so despite a January 22nd Board of Control statement warning that “Participation by students in demonstrations or other activities calculated to, or having the effect of, inflaming the public, or inciting strife or violence will be considered as endangering the welfare of our universities.”

Statement from the State Board of Control discouraging student participation in civil rights demonstrations, January 22, 1957.

Statement to the press regarding the disciplinary action against Boardman, January 26, 1957.

Letter from FSU President Doak Campbell to Boardman sustaining the decision to expel Boardman from the university, February 8, 1957.

After the decision was announced, Boardman appealed to FSU President Doak Campbell, who sustained the decision of the disciplinary committee based on Boardman’s expressed refusal to follow regulations. Boardman and his supporters maintained his expulsion was reprisal for his active opposition to segregation.

Letters to FSU President Campbell during this time expressed either impassioned support for or opposition to disciplinary action against student civil rights activists. The Association of Citizens Councils of Florida urged that “All of the students at [FSU and FAMU] who have been involved in these incidents must be suspended or expelled from school and they must not be allowed to re-enter any State-supported institution of higher learning ever.” One opponent described Boardman’s expulsion as “more like that taking place in Iron Curtain countries than in free America.”

Letter from Homer T. Barrs of the Association of Citizens Councils of Florida to the Board of Control at Florida State University encouraging the board to take action against students of state-supported institutions of higher learning participating in civil rights activities in Tallahassee, page 1, January 24, 1957.

Letter from Homer T. Barrs of the Association of Citizens Councils of Florida, page 2, January 24, 1957.

 

Letter from Naikan Cohen to President Campbell protesting his decision to uphold the suspension of Boardman, January 27, 1957.

Boardman went on to earn his PhD in physics from Syracuse University in 1962 and was a long-time physics professor at Brooklyn College.

The records regarding Boardman’s expulsion from FSU are from series S1360, Florida State University President Doak S. Campbell Administrative Files, 1941-1957, Box 20, Folder 41. The documents below represent a fraction of letters available regarding Boardman’s expulsion that were sent to President Campbell. Click the images below to see the documents enlarged.

Teacher Mrs. Roy A. Patton supporting FSU President Doak Campbell’s decision to uphold the suspension of Boardman.

Letter from Dean Boggs of the Duval County Federation for Constitutional Government praising the president’s decision to expel Boardman, January 28, 1957.

Letter from “An Unhappy Student” expressing opposition to the president’s decision to expel Boardman.

Letter from “A Foreigner” warning President Campbell about “foreign students.”

Letter from the Morehouse College Students Association encouraging President Campbell to reconsider his decision to expel Boardman.

Letter from Hector Fuente, vice president of the Dade County Property Owners Association, praising President Campbell’s decision to expel Boardman.

Letter from E. Clyde Vining, attorney, commending President Campbell’s decision to expel Boardman, January 29, 1957.

Letter from Victor G. Backus, director of the news bureau at Fisk University, expressing his indignation over the president’s decision to expel Boardman, February 5, 1957.

Letter to President Campbell expressing opposition to the president’s decision to expel Boardman, page 1, January 27, 1957.

Letter to President Campbell expressing opposition to the president’s decision to expel Boardman, page 2, January 27, 1957.

A Home for Higher Learning

It’s hard to imagine Tallahassee without Florida State University or Gainesville without the University of Florida, but how did they get there? Believe it or not, at one time these institutions existed only on paper, and could have been located anywhere in the state. Multiple towns competed for the honor of hosting them, and the Legislature had to make some tough decisions to choose homes for Florida’s first institutions of higher learning.

Florida’s elected representatives recognized the value of higher education early on, but failed to translate their enthusiasm into action during the territorial era. In 1823, the territorial council voted to set aside two townships’ worth of public land to raise money for a seminary of higher learning. In 1836, Governor Richard Keith Call appointed a 14-member board to plan for a University of Florida. Very little concrete action materialized from these efforts, however, and Florida became a state in 1845 still lacking a state college of any kind.

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Floridians lamented the state of their educational system. Georgia had had a public university since 1785, while the University of Alabama had been open since 1831. Meanwhile, Florida’s young men and women were obliged to travel outside the state to finish their training, or not receive it at all. In January 1851, the Legislature took action by establishing two seminaries for teacher training, one for each side of the Suwannee River. Beyond this one directive, the act was silent as to where the two schools should be located. The Legislature would have to make that choice once the options were clearer.

Several towns throughout the state took this as their cue to make it very clear why they should be chosen as the site for one of the new seminaries. Several of their petitions to the Legislature have survived and are now part of Record Series 2153 at the State Archives of Florida. In recommending themselves, the petitioners focused on the healthfulness and convenience of their location. Pensacola’s advocates, for example, argued their proximity to the Gulf and points west would attract students from neighboring Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and perhaps even the West Indies. Ocala’s petitioners pointed to their position near the geographic center of the peninsula and the number of stage roads in the area as reasons for the town’s worthiness.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries. Click the image to enlarge it.

The committees writing these petitions realized, however, that it would take more than a few beautiful descriptive phrases to sway the Legislature. To sweeten the deal, they included offers of land, buildings, and even cash to strengthen their case.

East of the Suwannee River, Ocala in Marion County and Newnansville in Alachua County were the main contenders for a seminary. The Ocala petitioners offered to give the state 16 town lots in Ocala valued at $5,000, plus $1,600 cash, as well as the buildings then being used by the East Florida Independent Institute. The Institute had been established in 1852 by a New Englander named Gilbert Dennis Kingsbury, who went by the name S.S. Burton in Florida. Newnansville did not yet possess anything like the East Florida Independent Institute had to offer, but in their petition the citizens of the town pledged $5,000 toward constructing new facilities. The Legislature ultimately selected Ocala as the site for the state seminary east of the Suwannee, which after a series of transformations and a relocation to Gainesville became the University of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 - Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 – Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click image to enlarge and view transcript.

West of the Suwannee, Pensacola and Tallahassee were locked into a similar competition. Pensacola’s citizens promised to provide whatever land was necessary to build a seminary, but Tallahassee went much farther. The mayor and city council pledged to donate $10,000 to the cause, made up partly of $7,000 worth of land and buildings already under construction, plus the remainder in cash. City officials also offered to grant the institution an annuity of $1,500. Citizens of nearby Quincy in Gadsden County chimed in with a similar offer of the buildings used by the Quincy Academy, but the petitioners did not commit any specific amount of cash to the project, let alone an annuity. The Legislature chose Tallahassee as the site for the state seminary west of the Suwannee, which ultimately became the Florida State College for Women and later the Florida State University.

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school's football team was taken in 1899.

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school’s football team was taken in 1899. The team members are sitting on the steps of College Hall, the seminary’s main building, which stood from its construction in 1891 to 1909, when it was replaced by Westcott Hall, which still stands today.

What state institutions are located near your Florida community? Do you know how long they’ve been around, or how they came to exist? The State Library & Archives is home to a wealth of information on this subject – search Florida Memory, the State Library Catalog, and the Archives Online Catalog to learn more.