Civil rights strife led to Florida Memorial’s move to Miami

06/21/2014 7:00 PM

06/20/2014 7:28 PM

This letter is in response to Dina Weinstein’s June 7 Issues & Ideas article, St. Augustine protests spurred landmark civil rights vote in 1964. While Weinstein correctly detailed much of the story, the impact on Florida Memorial College was not fully told.

The captions on the photographs included with the story indicate that many of the people were unidentified. In truth, those nameless faces might have been students from Florida Memorial College (now University), which was then located in St. Augustine. The school’s students, faculty and leadership contributed to and were significantly affected by the protests in that city in 1964.

In partnership with the St. Augustine 450 Project and the exhibition entitled Journey: 450 Years of the African American Experience, FMU held a “Reunion and Remembrance” event in the city on March 1, which offered an occasion for alumni from FMU’s St. Augustine campus to interact with current students and supporters who made the pilgrimage from Miami Gardens. A significant portion of the exhibition is entitled, “Florida Memorial College: Backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Attendees were greeted by the mayor of St. Augustine, Jim Boles. From the dais during the luncheon, Mayor Boles offered an apology to Florida Memorial on behalf of the city of St. Augustine for its failure to protect, defend and retain the college. It was a remarkable pronouncement, long overdue but a significant step toward reconciling the relationship between the city and the university.

During its 135-year history, this historically black university has survived difficult and sometimes life-threatening conditions.

The waning years of Florida Memorial’s tenure in St. Augustine were filled with tension. The widely publicized and brutal civil-rights protests in St. Augustine in 1963 and 1964, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) pressured the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Students and administrators from Florida Memorial were an integral part of that fight. While many in the nation celebrated a victory, the university suffered as its relations with the city’s white power structure deteriorated.

Facing the reality that the town-and-gown relationship had been irreparably damaged, FMC President Dr. Royal Puryear and the school’s board of trustees moved forward with plans to relocate the institution to Opa-locka.

As Florida Memorial University approaches its 50th anniversary at its home in Miami-Dade, the institution looks forward to sharing more of its unique history with the South Florida community.

Tameka Bradley Hobbs, assistant professor of history; William E. Hopper, associate vice president for Institutional Effectiveness, Florida Memorial University, Opa-locka

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