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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

UF students find community through Black organizations

On-campus organizations have fostered relationships between Black students for decades

Asia Smith became involved with UF SISTUHS, a Black community service organization, to help her give back to her community.

“A lot of times we talked about, ‘What can you do for the communities?’” she said. “Sometimes it's really just being a voice for people that don't have them.”

Black UF students, like Smith, form strong bonds through diverse campus organizations at the predominantly white university.

In 1971, there were only 343 Black students among the more than 20,000 white students enrolled at UF. 

Over 50 years later and as of Fall 2022, Black-identifying students still make up only about 5% out of just over 38,000 undergraduate, degree-seeking students on campus, according to the UF diversity database.

Black enrollment has remained stagnant despite an increase in Black applicants over the past few years, The Alligator reported. 

The campus civil rights movement came to a head April 15, 1971, about 13 years after UF’s campus desegregated. Now known as Black Thursday, students gathered in protest and marched into then UF President Stephen O’Connell’s office with a list of six demands. 

More than 60 students were put on academic probation and several others were arrested. O’Connell refused to grant the arrested students amnesty, leading more than 120 Black students to leave UF. The result of these events led to the founding of the Institute of Black Culture, recently renamed Black Affairs. 

The Institute of Black Culture

Ahmari Miller, an 18-year-old UF accounting freshman, is a member of the Leadership Development Institute under the Black Student Union. LDI is a freshmen-only, application-based program geared toward Black students that prepares future leaders for the executive board within BSU. 

For Miller, community relationships drew her to a future leadership position in BSU.

“I know coming to a [predominately white institution] you want to find your people immediately,” she said. “I want to have some type of position helping my community out.” 

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The passing of Florida Senate Bill 266, which defunded diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across all state universities, put many organizations within UF at risk

Miller worries the consequences of removing DEI funding will impact BSU’s success. 

“Black UF in itself is very small,” she said. “We always have to fundraise really hard… we all have to get together and try to support each other as much as we can.”

When not in class, Miller frequently studies in the IBC. She wishes more people knew about it, she said. 

“The IBC is welcome to everyone,” she said. “There is a lot of history here… we’d love people outside of the Black community to come because that’s a good learning opportunity for them.”

UF Black Student Union

Between 1968 and 1970, UF students organized a Black Student Union. Its main focus was to create a support system and social organization for Black students. 

Victoria Peters, a 20-year-old UF political science and African American studies sophomore, is the special events assistant director for BSU. For Peters, a regular day under special events is creating promotional material, events and communications. Peters found it important to find community, she said. 

“As a Black student, I really wanted to find a community where I could express myself and express my experiences at UF,” she said. 

Peters wished more students knew about the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, a social  justice research center located in Pugh Hall. The program is dedicated to transcribing historic material to preserve and promote diverse perspectives. 

Peters also mentioned the National Pan-Hellenic Council garden, located on the north lawn near Marston library. The NPHC garden is a tribute to the Black Greek Letter organizations, called the Divine Nine.

Independent organizations

Asia Smith, a 20-year-old UF information systems junior, is a member of the UF SISTUHS chapter. The independent organization — standing for strength, initiative, spirituality, tenacity, health and substance — creates initiatives for Black women in local leadership, development and community service. 

SISTUHS tabled in Turlington plaza Feb. 9 to raise awareness for its collaboration with Gainesville area high schools to help young students receive test-prep materials and financial aid guides for college entrance exams. 

The group is collecting college students’ newer, gently used textbooks to be given to local high schools. 

Equal access to college prep and aid is important, and the textbook drive will help alleviate some of the financial pressures on high school students, Smith said. 

“A lot of times, we don’t really recognize it as a privilege in a lot of places just to even be able to afford to take those tests and exams,” she said.

Because the SISTUHS event is one of many over the course of this month, improving the education of Black history is important to Smith, she said. 

Prominent figures in Black history often feel repeated over time, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks, she said. Smith feels the repetitive nature diminishes the whole purpose of the Black triumphant story, she said. 

“We’re not just the struggle… sometimes we need to recognize Black history as being able to recognize Black people have actually won in history,” she said.

Even as many more Black organizations on campus are holding celebratory events this month, Smith said there should be a shared community within the celebration. 

“With Black organizations on campus, we’re your friend,” she said. “When we celebrate ourselves, it’s never to diminish or downplay another culture or race… we’re really just trying to find our own voice and presence on campus.” 

Thierry Denis, a 20-year-old sports UF management junior, is a member of UF Progressive Black Men Incorporated, a fellowship of brothers focused on community support and academic excellence. As co-membership chair, Denis’ membership to the program has become one of his biggest passions, he said.

“I had the privilege of teaching others about the organization… it makes me proud and fills me with a sense of pride,” he said. 

Black History Month events bring together more community involvement for Denis, and it’s important to appreciate the sense of unity, he said. 

“Already being a minority and then going to a PWI, it’s easy to feel marginalized,” he said. “As our community is so small, events and things that bring us together are necessary and important.” 

Contact Sara-James Ranta at sranta@alligator.org. Follow her on X @sarajamesranta.


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