GAINESVILLE – Virgil Hawkins opened the door to the legal profession for African-American lawyers in Florida, and the legal profession has not forgotten his sacrifices.
Larry D. Hardaway of Hardaway Law Firm recalls meeting Hawkins when Hardaway was in law school in 1976. He didn’t know who Hawkins was at the time, but he soon learned.
“You’ve heard the old saying: you stand on somebody else’s shoulders," Hardaway told the Florida Record. "In this particular case I went to the University of Florida law school. It was his efforts that integrated that law school."
Hardaway partnered with the Virgil Hawkins Bar Association and other entities to present the Virgil Hawkins story to Pope County in February. He remembers Hawkins as a trailblazer and looks to him as a role model.
The Virgil Hawkins story began in 1949 when Hawkins applied the University of Florida Law School and was denied entry based on his race. With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund, he fought a nine-year legal battle to get African-American students admitted to the University of Florida Law School.
When the Brown v. Board of Education case was decided in 1957, the ruling in a companion case ordered the university to admit Virgil Hawkins, but Florida’s Supreme Court refused to enforce the order. They came back with a compromise. If Hawkins was willing to drop his application, the school would admit African-Americans.
Hawkins agreed, and withdrew his application, paving the way for George H. Starke to be admitted as the first African-American student to the University of Florida. However, a court order did not equal public acceptance. Starke weathered the poor treatment of classmates and members of the public for nine months before he dropped out.
Another African-American student, George Allen, was accepted in 1960. In 1962, he became the first African-American student to graduate from the University of Florida.
Hawkins had lost the battle, but won the war. He applied to the New England School of Law in Massachusetts. It was 1977 before Hawkins finally earned his license to practice law in Florida. Even that was not without challenge. His application to take the bar was denied at first because the law school from which he graduated was not accredited by the formerly segregated American Bar Association. He appealed and took his oath of office. He was 69 years old.
“So this guy started practicing law at 70, clearly at the time when most lawyers are far retired from practice,” Hardaway said.
Since Hawkins’ death at the age of 81, groups and organizations have remembered his contributions by adopting his name. The University of Florida named its civil legal clinics after him. The Florida Chapter National Bar Association also added his name to its title, becoming the Virgil Hawkings FCNBA. The group, of which Hardaway is a member, includes more than 1,000 attorneys statewide and is a local chapter of the National Bar Association.
“What Virgil Hawkins did has assisted in the beginnings of diversity for colleges and universities here in the state of Florida and particularly diversity in the Florida bar and the legal community here in Florida. Because of Virgil and his efforts and what followed we have minority members throughout the legal community in the state of Florida,” Hardaway said. “Diversity is valued by the bar here in Florida and the bar expresses its appreciation for what Virgil did.”