On May 13, 1949, a forty-three year old man from Lake County named Virgil Darnell Hawkins received a letter from the University of Florida Law School rejecting his application because he was African-American. Hawkins refused to accept the prejudiced decision without a fight, and promptly filed suit against the Florida Board of Control in 1950. His legal battle would carry on for nine years, laying the foundation for the integration of Florida’s graduate and professional schools.
Despite the larger civil rights victory, Hawkins emerged from the ordeal partially defeated as he never gained admission to the institution he considered “one of the finest law schools in the country.” The case of Virgil Hawkins v. Board of Control brought Florida into the national school desegregation conversation, serving as an antecedent to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Furthermore, Hawkins’ ordeal underscores the tenacity with which segregation advocates fought the drive for an integrated university system, some even going so far as to suggest that such a change would incite “public mischief.”
Before Virgil Hawkins took his stand, there was no law school for African-Americans in Florida. Rather than fund a separate institution in Florida or permit African-Americans to attend an existing school with whites, the state instituted a law in 1945 to provide scholarships for select African-American students to study at segregated law schools outside the state. When Virgil Hawkins refused to accept that alternative, the Board of Control approved plans to open a segregated law school at Florida A&M College. By 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on two related cases, Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma, professing the inherent inequality of segregated graduate institutions. Despite these rulings, the Florida court still refused to admit Hawkins, and would continue to refuse even after the so-called Brown II decree issued by the Supreme Court in 1955 to clarify the original Brown decision. Hawkins persisted in his fight against the state’s segregationist position, but more challenges were on the way. In 1958, the Board of Control established a new minimum score on the law school entry exam for incoming students, setting the admission threshold fifty points above Hawkins’ 1956 score. As a result, Hawkins was officially denied not because of his race, but rather because he was disqualified by the new rules regarding test scores. Later that summer, federal district judge Dozier DeVane mandated that all qualified applicants be admitted to graduate and professional schools in Florida regardless of race.
Nine years after the initial integration suit, African-American veteran George H. Starke, not Virgil Hawkins, enrolled at the University of Florida Law School in September 1958 without incident. As for Virgil Hawkins, he eventually received his law degree in New England, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1977. He resigned in 1985 following complaints about his practice.
Virgil Hawkins’ case is an excellent example of how the Civil Rights Movement played out in the courtrooms of Florida as much as it did at lunch counters, public beaches, and city buses. The legal battles fought by Hawkins and others laid the groundwork for an integrated education system for all of Florida.
Florida proudly joins the rest of the United States in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. For more information about events commemorating the Civil Rights Movement, see our Events Calendar.