The Challenge Party is starting a petition to rename the O’Connell Center in a video announcement sent to The Alligator and posted on Facebook on Tuesday.
The center is a sports, graduation and concert venue. The UF basketball, gymnastics and swim team currently use the venue. It recently went through a $64.5 million renovation.
Janae Moodie, who is running for Student Body president with Challenge, said the video was made to educate students on Stephen C. O’Connell’s restrictions on the black community at UF in the 1970s after they told him about their concerns about safety and inclusivity.
In the video, Moodie spoke about Virgil Hawkins, who was denied admission to the UF College of Law in April 1949 because of his race, according to UF’s website. Moodie said when Hawkins petitioned his rejection to the Florida Supreme Court, O’Connell was a justice who concurred in the decision.
Challenge’s campaign manager Wayne Selogy said they got the information from “African Americans at the University of Florida,” a history book by Betty J. Stewart-Dowdell and Kevin M. McCarthy published in 2003.
“The main reason we decided to make this one of our first action points is because of the sheer mass of people who vocalized this,” Moodie said. “It’s important to be aware of the university’s history and also to be held accountable to it.”
O’Connell started as the university president in 1967, one year after the the university was desegregated.
On April 15, 1971, also known as “Black Thursday,” the Black Student Union organized a sit-in to express their disappointment in the university for not encouraging black students to enroll or employing more black faculty members, according to UF’s website. O’Connell refused to meet with students, but demonstrators didn’t want to disperse.
As a result, 66 students were arrested, and 60 others were placed on academic probation. O’Connell refused to grant amnesty to the students who were arrested. And as a result, 123 black students and two black faculty members left the university.
This is not something that can be solved overnight, Moodie said.
“As an African-American student, it’d be very impactful on the overall climate of minority students in general,” she said. “This is more than just a black and white issue. Anytime any group is oppressed, it affects the overall climate of the institution.”
Moodie said this is a student-driven petition, and she’d let students decide on the center’s new name if it were to be changed.
“I know that students haven’t only spoken to Challenge Party about this concern,” she said. “We’re handing the power to the students to speak.”
“I definitely do have some sentiments about having the center named for what it is,” Black Student Union president Dwayne Fletcher said. “It’s well known that he was against policies to allow more black students to be a part of the university.”
The issues that the Black Student Union brought up to O’Connell in 1971 were ignored, Fletcher said.
“Students said ‘We’re not comfortable here; here are the different things we need to thrive as students,’” he said. “There were a lot of things that resulted from him not listening to the different needs of the students.”
Fletcher said every once in a while people bring up the idea of changing the name of the O’Connell Center.
“In terms of a complete and organized movement, I haven’t seen anything like that as of yet,” he said. “I’m not really sure where it would go. It would depend on the temperament of people at the time.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Wayne Selogy's name.