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The Integration Of The Florida Gators

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With today being Martin Luther King Day, it's appropriate to note that this will be the 40th anniversary of the Gators first black football player. From 100 Years of Gator Football.

History was made on Dec. 17, 1968, when the University of Florida signed halfback Leonard George of Tampa to an athletic scholarship, becoming the first black football player for the Gators. He was joined the following day when Willie Jackson of Sarasota inked his scholarship papers.

George and Jackson made significant contributions to the Florida program. Following a solid year as members of the freshman team in 1969, they moved up to the varsity in 1970. Both lettered all three years, and started most of the games during that period.

George was a running back in 1970 and became the first black athlete to score a touchdown on Alabama in Tuscaloosa; he then started at defensive back his junior and senior seasons. Jackson was a three year starter at wide receiver and kick returner. During his career, he caught 75 passes for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns.

Big running back Vince Kendrick of Miami signed in 1970, along with running back Lenny Lucas of Daytona Beach. By 1973 black athletes accounted for nearly one-third of the Florida roster, and included the school's all-time single season rusher leader in Nat Moore.

It is amazing that the University integrated in 1958, but it took another 10 years for the football team to. In The Boys From Old Florida, Coach Doug Dickey claimed the delay of the football team integration had to do with the local atmosphere.

"I think it goes back to the lawsuits," Dickey said. "When I got there in 1970, Alachua County was one of the counties that had gone to the Supreme Court. And it was ruled they had to integrate and could not have separate but equal [facilities]."

Consequently, it slowed down the integration process, whereas that hadn't happened in Tennessee. "People had a hard time with it at Florida. But the people in East Tennessee were not as vocally troubled by integration as they were in the state of Florida," Dickey said.

Florida, like every university in the 1970's, was a cauldron of controversy. The biggest example was the 1971 protest by the Black Student Union against the University because they felt UF had not done enough for black students. Proof of that were the 343 black students at UF in 1971, a small number considering black students began to be enrolled 13 years earlier. 66 students were arrested in the protest and President Stephen C. O'Connell chose to keep charges against them, leading to nearly a third of black students and several black faculty members to leave UF.

What did all of this have to do with football? From The Florida Alligator, April 29, 1971.

Black athletes decide to stay

Willie Jackson, speaking for all 10 black athletes on the Florida campus decided Tuesday afternoon that they would stay in school for the rest of the quarter and quite possibly on a permanent basis.

The athletes, four in football, two freshman basketball players and four in track decided that they were going to "give this thing a chance here. There's got to be somebody left here to keep the pressure on so changes can be made."

It took courage for students to protest and leave school, but it also took courage to remain at UF and play despite an unfriendly administration and community. Men like Willie Jackson and Don Gaffney, UF's first black quarterback in 1973, did as much for the University of Florida and the Gators as any of the players displayed on the north end zone façade. It would be nice to see UF honor them as the 40th anniversary of their signing and first season approaches.