As a child in school, history was a boring subject to Denise Mincey-Mills. She never understood the reason for learning dates, names and places unrelated to her life. But decades later, as a member of the University of Miami’s President’s Council she attended the anniversary luncheon celebrating 50 years of desegregation at the university and was inspired.
Eyewitnesses Dorothy Wallace, Harold Long and Thelma Gibson were among those honored for contributing to the integration of the University of Miami. It was then that Mincey-Mills began thinking about the need to document, preserve and share the pivotal decades of the 1960s and 1970s. She decided this was an important opportunity for UM graduates and community to learn about African Americans and so many others who contributed to the university’s history, and to Miami-Dade County.
Interviewed for a university publication, Mincey-Mills recounted how she spent eight months reviewing, page by page, every yearbook from 1926 to 1979. From the photographs, she recorded the names of the 685 black graduates. Mincey-Mills solicited two other 1979 UM graduates, Phyllis Tyler and Antonio Junior, to help co-chair the First Black Graduates committee. As word spread, other alumni joined and the last weekend in February 2017 was designated for an exhibition, gala, campus tours and the creation of the First Black Graduates Endowment.
At last count, of the original 685 graduates 647 have been located. Before the event, organizers want to identify the remaining graduates or their families.
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Of course there were no black students, faculty or administrators when the University of Miami opened in Coral Gables in 1926.
According to historian and UM Professor Emeritus Whittington Bernard Johnson, “This was the pre-Brown decisions era when Jim Crow laws reigned supreme.”
A native Miamian of Bahamian ancestry, Johnson was born in 1931 nearly 15 miles northwest of the UM campus in Colored Town/Overtown. “I knew about the UM as a teenager, and my senior year the football team, I was a “scrub” on that team (smile), and was admitted to its football games free; we sat in the end zone, “Colored section” (at the Orange Bowl stadium),” Johnson said. “The UM of my teenage days did not welcome black people to its campus.”
Johnson graduated from Miami’s Booker T. Washington Jr. Sr. High School in 1949. With a thirst for higher education, he earned degrees at West Virginia State College, Indiana University and the University of Georgia.
He taught at Savannah State College where he met his future wife, Imogene. She later earned a Master’s degree in education at UM. They have been married 50 years.
While Johnson was teaching elsewhere, black students all over the country were participating in marches, burnings, sit-ins, and protests attempting to improve their education. They also demanded the hiring of black faculty and administrators, as well as adding black courses at college and universities.
In 1970, as a result protests by black students, Johnson was recruited and hired to become the first black member of the University of Miami’s faculty.
Johnson joined the history department and during his tenure, 1970 to 2002, was recognized numerous times for excellence in teaching. A noted scholar his publications, “Black Savannah, 1788-1864,” “Race Relations in the Bahamas, 1784-1834,” and “Post Relations in the Bahamas” are classics. Now retired, his frequent letters to Miami Herald Editorial Board express his opinion on timely topics based on scholarship and experience.
Over the decades, monumental changes have been made to policies regarding welcoming all people to the University of Miami’s campuses.
Adding to the university’s credit, in 1971 Andrew F. Brimmer was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Miami. An economist, academic, and business leader, Brimmer was the first black to serve as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board.
A current project sponsored by the UM Black Alumni Society acknowledges those at the university who blazed the trail in breaking the color barrier at the 1960s and ’70s.
The first black graduates “top of the class” honorees are Ray Bellamy, Burgess Owens, George Knox, Harold Long, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, Kim Sands, H.T. Smith, C.J. Latimore, David Makepeace, and Dr. Mike Kotler. Individually and collectively they participated first-hand in the changes that helped improve education for black students at the university. The United Black Student Association (UBS) became a force for change.
The stories, good and bad, are all a part of history and must be told.
A participant and observer during this era, UM Vice President and Professor Emeritus William Butler has first-hand knowledge of this decade.
His book, “Embracing the World,” records numerous incidents and actions of the administration and the students. According to his research, change officially began on Jan. 31, 1961, when the UM Board of Trustees adopted a new policy permitting any qualified student to enroll “irrespective of race and color.” This new policy opened the door for Benny O’Berry to enroll on the Coral Gables campus the 1961 summer session.
The weekend Feb. 24-25 is designed to celebrate the successes and contributions to the university community hosted by the Alumni Society on the Coral Gables campus.
This inaugural weekend opens at UM’s Richter Library with a long-awaited exhibition, “We Were Pioneers.”
“I hope this exhibition will be able to tell the local community that there were real people at the university who fought and accomplished what we take for granted today,” said Koichi Tasa, a UM Libraries archivist. “We have come a long way but we need to keep working to improve on diversity and civil rights.”
Historian, scholar and author Professor Donald Spivey will make a presentation at the exhibition.
The exhibition is on view throughout February. Afterward, a web version will be available for future students and researchers.
Professor Johnson encourages teachers and parents to “teach black history the year round.”
“A group that relies upon another group to tell its history probably will be excluded from the narrative.” he said.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you know what became of missing First Black Graduates, call 305-284-2872 or toll free at 1.866-862-5867; or download the registration form at miami.edu/firstblackgraduates.