The past, present and future were the major themes for Florida Memorial University on Thursday as the college held its Founders’ Day convocation and celebrated 135 years in Florida.
Florida Memorial remains the only historically black college in South Florida after moving to the area in 1968. FMU was born from the combination of the Florida Baptist Institute, founded in 1879, and the Florida Baptist Academy, founded in 1892. The schools officially merged in 1941, but the university was accredited in 1931.
Alumni and civil rights activists, who were active when the college was still located in St. Augustine in the 1960s, spoke about their experiences. They discussed marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and how grateful they were for their Florida Memorial family when activists faced the threat of the Ku Klux Klan.
J. Walter Hale, an alumnus and advisor in the university’s center for academic retention, spoke about when he met King, and recalled how the civil rights leader asked a crowd gathered at St. Paul’s AME Church to follow him into the streets where klansmen were waiting.
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“The Klan seemed to grow up out of the concrete,” Hale said. “But, we were determined, we sustained, we persevered.”
Cynthia Clark, who was a high school student at the time, also recounted those marches and the actions of their aggressors. She said many people were chased out of town and beaten.
“They would yell obscenities to us, they would throw all kinds of things at us, rocks, bottles, it didn’t matter,” Clark said. “If there were street lights on, they would make certain those lights went off so it became very dark.”
She said that although St. Augustine has become more progressive since the ’60s, she hopes that students don’t forget the past as they continue their education.
“I implore you to realize that there are many, many people who came before you to make your life the way it is today,” Clark said.
As the Miami Gardens university celebrates 135 years, it finds itself in the middle of a tough period for historically black colleges and universities. When the newly installed president, Roslyn Clark Artis, became interim president last summer, she was facing a $3 million budget deficit that has been reduced through layoffs, salary freezes and other efforts.
Artis said that government sequestration and reductions in federal funding have had an impact on historically black colleges and universities.
“Those are all issues that are significant challenges for colleges that are tuition-based,” Artis said.
Moving forward, she said Florida Memorial University will focus on continuing to try to attract high-quality students.
The convocation also featured performances from the school’s ambassador chorale who sang Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, which was composed by John Rosamond Johnson on the school’s campus in 1900. The school’s royal court and Artis addressed the crowd and continued to focus on how the past could inform the present and future.
“Let us remember that we are the evidence of an awesome legacy; we are Florida Memorial University,” Artis said.