The pounding of the djembe shook the ground, the shekere set the pace. Enthusiastic claps joined in unison. She grasped the palms of her elders and swept the floor below them with her hands. The music brought sitting guests to their feet in a rhythmic trance.
The pace quickened. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn’s toes peddled the carpet as her arms reached from her heart to the heavens in one fluid motion. Her white dress rippled and recoiled as her body moved.
Hilliard-Nunn led the Harvest dance in the Gainesville Thomas Center in 2009, a dance once performed by enslaved people as a form of release from back-breaking labor, and taught many others in her lifetime.
“She was the epitome of empowering Blackness,” said UF international studies 2019 alumna Simone Yuille.
An adjunct African American studies associate lecturer, Hilliard-Nunn died on Aug. 5 at 57 years old. Though she battled illnesses in her past, the cause of her death is unknown, said Sharon Burney, a close friend and African American studies program assistant.
Hilliard-Nunn was an integral part of the Black UF experience, Yulle said. Her legacy will live on.
“It didn't make sense to me how someone who was such a ball of light and energy could just pass away,” Yulle said. “Once I finally accepted it, I just cried all day.”
Hilliard-Nunn dedicated her life’s work to empowering students, captivating the community with animated historical anecdotes and uncovering blanketed racism in Alachua County, according to her friends. Hilliard-Nunn was a historian, an educator, a member of Delta Sigma Theta inc., a poet, a social justice warrior, a wife and a mother.
Much of what has inspired her teaching in lynching, white supremacy, enslavement, West African dance and racial injustices stems from her family line of historians and activists, according to her father, Asa Grant Hilliard III in an interview by The History Makers.
“My aunts were refusing to get up and move on the bus long before Rosa Parks did that,” Asa Hilliard III said.
Her grandfather, Asa Hillard II, was given the title “race man” because he actively challenged white supremacy and segregation and advocated for justice, Asa Hilliard III said. Asa Hilliard II also founded the Texas Statewide Student Council Association in order for young people “to get their feet wet” on pressing issues impacting the Black community.
Her father, Asa Hilliard III, was a historian and psychology professor who published articles on indigenous ancient African history. Her mother, Patsy Jo Hilliard, worked in the school system for decades and was the first African American to be elected as mayor in East Point, Georgia.
Hilliard-Nunn was the mother of two children, Dayo, 24, and Foluke Nunn, 26, and was married to UF law professor Kenneth Nunn. Born in Virginia, she attended Hampton University and earned a bachelor’s in mass media. She later went on to pursue a master of fine arts degree in film production at Howard University and a Ph.D. in mass media at Florida State University.
When she moved to Alachua County in the ’90s, Hilliard-Nunn anticipated sandy beaches and tangy oranges, she said during a 2018 in-class panel. Instead, she stumbled into a vast history of racism and violence.
Alachua County once had the seventh largest number of enslaved people in Florida, she said. Hilliard-Nunn followed in the footsteps of her ancestors, bullhorn in hand, and taught about racial injustice on the streets, in her office and in the classroom.
According to students, it only took one encounter with Hilliard-Nunn to connect with her.
Olivia Ingram, a UF 2020 criminology alumna who recently moved to Tallahassee, knew Hilliard-Nunn for more than four years. She last spoke with her in May about her law school journey. Hilliard-Nunn always made time for her, she said. She wrote Ingram a letter of recommendation and reviewed her personal statement.
Her earliest memory of Hilliard-Nunn was as a freshman in Hilliard-Nunn’s introductory African American studies class. It was a class made up of predominantly Black students and a few white students.
“Something that she said all the time: ‘We're all cousins,’” Ingram said. “That is something that I will never forget, and that I take with me. Just to treat everyone as family and to share that love and positivity.”
As a Black student at the university, Ingram said she felt like she didn’t fit in. Only 7 percent of UF students are Black, according to UF enrollment data. Hilliard-Nunn helped Ingram find her circle at UF, helped her establish her own minority group, the Minority Pre-Legal Society, and supported her towards her career plans, she said.
“If you sat up there and polled every student that she touched, you would, without a doubt, fill up Ben Hill Griffin Stadium,” Burney said.
Hilliard-Nunn’s dedication stretched beyond the walls of her classroom and inspired student activists like Alfredo Ortiz, a 20-year-old UF philosophy junior and former executive assistant for the UF chapter of the NAACP.
“How is it that people like us who have never met her feel such strong emotional reactions to the news of her passing?” he said. “That should tell you how big of an impact she had.”
As a Gainesville resident, Ortiz was fascinated with Hilliard-Nunn’s work — in particular, her research into the Newberry Six. In 1916, five Black men and women were lynched after being accused of helping Boisey Long, a Black man who killed Deputy George Wynne, escape. Thousands of people witnessed the lynching in their “Sunday best,” and mothers allowed their children to touch the bodies as they swung from the trees, she said in an in-class panel.
Burney said that Hilliard-Nunn had worked for years to develop a Newberry Six memorial. In 2019, a historical marker was placed at Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church.
Hilliard-Nunn was like a walking history book, as she always encouraged others to speak with their elders and listen closely to their stories, Burney said. The invaluable work of oral history interviews from elders aided Hilliard-Nunn in restoring the truth.
“Telling the truth can be an unpopular opinion,” Burney said. “She really believed in empowering people with the truth, teaching them a true history and dismantling all the misinformation they have been given.”
As an advocate for community engagement, her “get-it-done” attitude enabled her to found numerous programs prior to Newbery Six. She developed the Markare Publishing Company and worked for the Community Outreach Partnership Center at UF in the late ’90s. As the special projects director, she focused on community building in historically-Black areas such as Porters Quarters and Seminary Lane. She also founded The Powerful Elder Organization, where she provided health care resources and performed dances and songs for the Black elders in Gainesville.
She also founded Sisters of my MAAT, an African principle, where she mentored young Black girls in the Gainesville area into womanhood through mentorship and cultural exposure.
“She believed at every level [we] were important and powerful and carried the gift of the divine. We were supposed to be celebrated no matter who we were,” Burney said.
UF’s Twitter page recognized Hilliard-Nunn as an “exceptionally gifted teacher” on Aug. 5.
“Her voice was soft, yet firm, reflecting her knowledge and her faith for connecting,” UF President Fuchs said in a Twitter post.
Other student organizations such as Girls w’ Curlz at UF, the UF Chapter of the NAACP and the Samuel Proctor Oral History program commemorated her legacy on social media.
From colleagues and students alike, she was amiable due to her approachable and kind nature, but she is equally remembered for her scholarship and reconstruction of Alachua County history, said African American Studies professor Rik Stevenson.
“She will laugh with you one minute, and the next minute she would break down social injustices,” Burney said. “She’s one of those rare people who not only talked the talk but walked it in everyday life.”
Hilliard-Nunn will be laid to rest on Aug. 15.