Jeraldine Williams faced silent racism as the first African American student in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications from 1963 to 1967.

People pretended she didn’t exist. A fellow student suggested she must be from the ghetto.

“Nobody was hitting me over the head except with words, but you had to be ready,” she said.

Williams said she was one of the first 14 black students at UF and the first African American Hearst Winner, a national collegiate journalism award. She spoke about her experiences to about 20 people Monday morning in Reitz Union as part of the UF Black Affairs’ Culture and Coffee series, said Carl Simien, director of Black Affairs.

The event was sponsored by the department of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, which paid about $1,000 for her lodging expenses and refreshments during the talk, Simien, who lives in the Tampa Bay area said.

Simien said it’s important to look back and draw strength from the stories of individuals who have been trailblazers in the community.

“It was history and legacy of one of our UF alum that needed to be shared,” Simien said, “and students needed that opportunity to engage with her and connect with her story and experiences.”

Timbria Burke, a 19-year-old UF health science sophomore, said that as a black person, she has experienced racism first hand but not directly at UF. Even though discrimination in minorities still exists, she said it seems like nothing compared to Williams’ experiences.

Burke said the upcoming Student Government election with three black Student Body presidential candidates should be interesting.

“I feel like UF does need a black Student Body president,” she said. “However, even when we get a black Student Body president, that does not mean that the change we need will occur.”

Williams, now a lawyer, said UF is still evolving. She likes the direction it’s going in.

“When I hear about what’s happening here at the University of Florida, I am not underwhelmed. I am overwhelmed. I am excited,” Williams said to the crowd of mostly black students. “Not only to see you, but to see what you’re doing and how you’re representing me.”

Williams told the audience members to prepare themselves and know their African American history better than anyone else. She said because that way, no one can tell them who they are.

“People try to kick you down but they’re really just kicking you up to the top,” she said.