Illustration by Matt Rota

Racists in Florida Kept This Man From Becoming a Lawyer for 30 Years

Virgil Hawkins wanted to go to law school. His home state waged "an undeclared second civil war" to keep him from doing so.

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Apr 17 2018, 6:59pm

Illustration by Matt Rota

The following has been adapted from Pulitzer Prize winning author Gilbert King's new book Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, out April 24 on Penguin Random House.

By 1900, most of the Seminoles of America’s Southeast had been wiped out in battle, succumbed to disease or starvation, or been relocated to Indian territory west of the Mississippi. The population of Florida, at slightly more than half a million residents, was the smallest of any state in the South. In what was essentially still “pioneer country,” settlers dwelt largely in rural homesteads that stretched from the plantation belt in the Panhandle down to the swamps of the Everglades. In central Florida, cow hunters still roamed the swamps and prairies. Hardy men, they abided the swampy, mosquito- infested terrain and defied the frequent hurricanes, not to mention the indigenous bears, panthers, alligators, and wild boars. To protect themselves against the sun and rain, they wore thick, slouched wool hats and wide pants tucked into tall leather lace-up boots that shielded them from the razor- sharp leaves of saw grass and the plenteous rattlesnakes. What most notably identified them, though—and was said to give them and this rural “cracker country” their names—were the long, braided rawhide whips they cracked to drive cattle from the scrub to the trails and thence to the coastal markets that had been carved out over the past century.

This was the country where Virgil W. Hawkins worked as a day laborer in Lake County’s grueling turpentine camps, alongside other blacks who were being exploited by a convict-lease system that thrived in the decades following the Civil War and ensured cheap labor for the industry. Hawkins managed to avoid falling victim to debt slavery and saved enough money to purchase, for two hundred dollars, a ten-acre homestead in nearby Okahumpka, on which he built a modest wood-frame house. He married Josephine Brown, and together they set out to build an independent family farm, while Virgil took seasonal work as a citrus picker or as a laborer in the nearby kaolin pits. They started a family.

Their life together took some of the sting out of the oppression suffered by blacks in Florida, but they could not ignore it. Between 1882 and 1930, Florida had the highest per capita lynching rate of any state in the nation. Like many Southern political leaders of the time, Florida governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward considered his white voting constituency to be unconcerned with the economic plight of blacks, but the lynching did concern him, as a threat to “civilization and Christianization.” He therefore proposed that the United States purchase some “foreign territory” where blacks could be deported, in order “to protect the white man from his own temper.”

To increase the opportunities for his children to advance in and beyond their community, as well as to elevate his own stature, Virgil served for years as a deacon at Okahumpka’s Bethel AME Church. Virgil Jr., bright and verbally adept, seemed the best suited of his sons to follow him into the clergy, once he’d finished his schooling. But it was law that interested Virgil Jr. Accompanying his father to the Lake County Courthouse, he observed the patent fear and helplessness of poor black defendants who were paraded before a judge without understanding the legal proceedings or their rights. “At that tender age,” Virgil Jr. would remember, “I didn’t know what a lawyer did, but I knew I had to do something.” He promised God he would someday defend “those who don’t even know what the word ‘guilty’ means.”

When he let slip his ambitions, Virgil Sr. exclaimed, “This child is going to hell for lying. Says he’s going to be a lawyer!” The revelation afforded the family a good laugh, yet they and other relatives were soon turning to Virgil Jr. when legal matters arose. “Go get Virgil,” Josephine would say. “He’ll know what to do. He’s going to be a lawyer.” His father began referring to him as “my little lawyer.” When he finished tenth grade—the final year of public education for blacks in Lake County—his parents decided to send him on to complete a high school curriculum at the AME-run Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. Though heavy on Bible studies, the school’s rich curriculum included courses on the history of civil rights, which accounted for its reputation as a site for future “race leaders.” No less vital than the classroom experience were the freedoms Virgil Jr. enjoyed in being part of Jacksonville’s thriving black community.

After graduating in 1930, Virgil headed north to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, whose alumni included Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes. But the Great Depression made it impossible for him to continue, and he returned to Lake County. There he met and married Ida Frazier, a schoolteacher from nearby Ocoee. They settled in Ocala, and for years Virgil commuted more than 50 miles a day from there to Groveland’s dilapidated black elementary school as he worked himself up from a lowly teaching position to principal.

At the age of 37 and still without even a baccalaureate degree, Virgil chanced upon an opportunity to keep his dream of a legal career alive when he was offered a position as director of public relations at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. There, he was able to attend classes and continue his education. His engagement with the intellectual community reawakened his passion for the study of law, and he resolved to honor the promise he’d made to God. The University of Florida in Gainesville had the only public law school in the state, however, and it admitted only whites. He and Ida, both of them Florida-born-and-bred, neither wanted nor could afford to live up north.

Between 1882 and 1930, Florida had the highest per capita lynching rate of any state in the nation.

A Daytona Beach attorney, Horace Hill, knew the NAACP was looking for plaintiffs to challenge discriminatory policies in public education, and he believed Virgil Hawkins would be an ideal candidate. So, in 1949, along with four other black aspiring law students, Hawkins applied to the University of Florida College of Law, and the NAACP started preparing their case. Predictably, the State of Florida denied them admission, and the Legal Defense Fund filed suit. No one in the plaintiff’s camp anticipated the fallout that followed.

The Florida Board of Control, the government agency first in line to respond to the suit, did so by offering Hawkins a full scholarship—on the condition that he agree to attend an out-of-state law school. Bethune-Cookman College meanwhile received notice that the school’s business loans would not be renewed unless they fired Virgil Hawkins. Stores where Ida shopped in Daytona Beach refused to issue her any further credit, and banks called in their loans. Threatening letters arrived regularly in the Hawkinses’ mail. Their neighbors were harassed.

Portrait of Virgil Hawkins via Getty Images, 1956.

The struggle began to take their toll on Virgil and Ida both. They decided to publicly feign a marital separation in order to remove Ida from the malign eye of harassers. Ida returned to Lake County, where she taught high school and lodged with Virgil’s family. To escape detection, Virgil would drive the 70-plus miles to Okahumpka in the middle of the night and sneak into his parents’ house by crawling under the floorboards. “We’re older than you,” his brother Melvin would tease him. “Why is your hair whiter than ours?” Virgil had a quick reply: “While you’re in your beds sleeping at night, I’m running, ducking, dodging and hiding under houses.”

In June 1950, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Sweatt v. Painter that a black applicant, Heman Marion Sweatt, must be admitted to the University of Texas School of Law, a decision that would pave the way for the landmark segregation case Brown v. Board of Education four years later. The State of Florida had filed an amicus brief in support of the State of Texas in the case, so the ruling was in effect a rejection of Florida’s arguments. Except that Florida defied the Court’s order by writing an opinion that upheld its plan to establish, as the University of Texas had attempted to do, a law school for blacks at Florida A& M. The Florida Supreme Court, meanwhile, delayed issuing a final order in the Hawkins case. Thurgood Marshall lambasted Florida’s contempt for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling as the Fort Sumter of “an undeclared second civil war.” But the Court itself was not disposed to consider Hawkins’s case, as Brown v. Board of Education was already in the pipeline. Virgil Hawkins had no choice but to wait.

Of the Florida Supreme Court in the 1950s, one historian observed, “It is doubtful that any institution in the South was more resolutely racist."

In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its unanimous ruling in Brown, thereby declaring racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. One week after the ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Hawkins’s writ of certiorari: In light of the Brown decision, the Florida Supreme Court’s judgment was vacated. Thurgood Marshall assigned the case to Constance Baker Motley, a 34-year-old attorney who’d graduated from Columbia Law School and was working at the Legal Defense Fund in New York. On the drive down to Tallahassee, her toddler son was denied use of a bathroom, a precursor to the racial antagonism the attorney would encounter in Florida when arguing before “a group of stone- faced white male judges.” Of the Florida Supreme Court in the 1950s, one historian observed, “It is doubtful that any institution in the South was more resolutely racist. No Southern court fought desegregation longer or harder.” Baker Motley was nonetheless astounded when the Florida Supreme Court finally rendered its opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to clarify further the federal enforcement of school desegregation (in what became known as Brown II ) allowed the University of Florida to defer admission to Hawkins for whatever length of time the State might require to “evaluate the potential harm to the public” that he might pose.

Once again Hawkins was denied his dream of a legal education and career, but he drew strength from three significant women in his life—his wife, Ida; Constance Baker Motley; and Mary McLeod Bethune, a founder of Bethune-Cookman College, who urged him “to fight until it’s over. Never stop. If you stop now, it might be a generation before somebody else comes along to take up the fight. Why not this generation?”

It would be nearly two more years before the Supreme Court—on the same day that Strom Thurmond unveiled in the U.S. Senate his Southern Manifesto against public racial integration—handed down a per curiam (unanimous) decision in regard to Virgil Hawkins. The Court determined that Hawkins was within his rights to attend the University of Florida College of Law and was “entitled to prompt admission under the rules and regulations applicable to other qualified candidates.”

The Supreme Court’s decision “horrified whites throughout Florida,” and Governor Leroy Collins, up for reelection, felt compelled to promise that “every legal recourse will be followed to avoid integration.” A hastily assembled “State Conference to Stop Integration” produced a message to President Eisenhower that Collins himself drafted, emphasizing that the State of Florida was committed to the “tradition and customs of segregation, which are as rooted in this state as in any other Southern state,” even as it warned that Florida was “experiencing a serious deterioration of racial relations.” It pledged formally to “use every legal means to avoid integration in the schools.” That did not stop Collins from being branded by his opponent as “the friend of the N-double-A-Cee-P” in the ensuing campaign fray. Hawkins was falsely accused of brutally beating two schoolchildren back when he’d taught school in the early 1940s, a charge that could bar him from the law school on legal and moral grounds. Although two former school officials stated they had no recollection of any such incidents and the accuser could point to no other substantiation, the state continued to refuse to comply even after the case returned to the Florida Supreme Court and then went to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Hawkins’s favor. The State of Florida simply refused to obey the mandate of the highest court in the nation.

But the legal writing was on the wall, and after throwing up roadblock after roadblock, the state of Florida eventually had to read it, and bow to the inevitable, but not without inflicting an additional indignity on the long- suffering petitioner. In June 1958, it agreed to begin accepting qualified black applicants to the University of Florida College of Law without delay—on condition that Hawkins would withdraw his own application. Unwilling to deprive other black students the opportunity of a higher education, Hawkins selflessly accepted the deal, and in September of that year, the College of Law admitted its first black applicant. Hawkins “opened the door but he never walked through it,” said W. George Allen, the first black man to earn a law degree there, in 1962. “He was my hero.”

In 1976, 27 years after Virgil Hawkins was denied admission to the University of Florida College of Law because of his race, he returned to Lake County bearing the law degree he had finally managed to obtain, from the New England School of Law. But his application for admission to the Florida Bar was rejected, on the grounds that the New England School of Law was not accredited when he’d graduated there in 1964. Hawkins fought the decision, and once again his case reached the Florida Supreme Court. The debate was heated, but the court finally ruled in his favor. After a 30-year struggle, Virgil Hawkins was sworn in to the Florida Bar as a member in good standing.

“This is the proudest day of my life,” he said, indicating that he would return to Leesburg and Okahumpka to represent indigent clients. But, at seventy and in poor health, Hawkins was not equipped to begin a law career, and the pace of high-stakes criminal defense work soon overwhelmed him. One client, convicted of assault and sentenced to prison, argued in his appeal that Hawkins had botched his defense. It was Hawkins’s first felony case. The bar agreed with the client. Hawkins was also reprimanded for ethical complaints over client billing and placed on probation. In tears, he resigned from the bar.

In 1988, Hawkins suffered a debilitating stroke. With his wife, Ida, unable to care for him in Leesburg, he languished in an Ocala hospital, where he died penniless. “I know what I did,” he said before his death. “I integrated schools in Florida. No one can take that away from me.”

A Florida attorney named Harley Herman, one of the few whites to attend Hawkins’s funeral, was appalled by the state’s treatment of the Okahumpka native. At his own expense, and against considerable resistance from the legal community, Herman began pressing for Hawkins’s posthumous reinstatement to the Florida Bar. In October 1988, the Florida Supreme Court complied, noting that Hawkins’s heroic struggle for equality under the law should be recognized and apologizing for its “great mistake” in having barred Hawkins in his efforts to gain admission.

From BENEATH A RUTHLESS SUN by Gilbert King. Published by arrangement with Riverhead, an member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Gilbert King.

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