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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Former UF professor talks desegregation

On Monday, a crowd of about 70 people learned about the history of race and education from a key player in the desegregation of Florida’s schools.

Walter Smith, a former UF professor who attended Gibbs Junior College when it was still an extension of an all-African-American high school in the Tampa area, spoke in-depth about the evolution of segregated junior colleges in Florida.

“So often we take things for granted,” he said, speaking at the Santa Fe College Fine Arts building. “More than that, we don’t even think about how we got to where we are.”

The former president of the historically black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Smith outlined the history of an evolving education for African-Americans — beginning with slaves learning to read — and encouraged audience members to do their own research.

“Learn some things,” he said. “That’s when you will really appreciate America and what it is. It’s important not to let your history die.”

He discussed Florida’s 12 original black junior colleges and the people who led them through their first years. From Pensacola Junior College, now Pensacola State College, to schools in Tampa and Broward County, Smith discussed education across the state.

In the audience, people nodded in agreement as Smith encouraged students to practice the “three D’s” — dedication, discipline and determination — to make it through their careers.

Kendall Pearce listened as her classmates scribbled notes on paper during the talk. The 18-year-old Santa Fe nursing freshman said she attended the event to get extra credit in her American History class.

“We’ve been talking a lot about segregation in the ’20s in history and in humanities, too,” she said. “It’s pretty relevant right now, but I’m mostly here for the extra credit. Midterms hit me hard.”

Although many of her classmates left during the talk, which lasted an hour and a half, Pearce stayed until the end, saying she was glad she attended.

“I learned that he did his research, and he really knows a lot,” she said.

She said she agreed most with Smith when he said standardized testing should not represent the whole career of

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high-school honors students and keep them from getting into college.

“I identify with that on a spiritual level,” she said.

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