Even before the Stephen C. O’Connell Center opened, there was a push at the University of Florida to keep the former school president’s name off the Gators’ basketball arena because of his segregationist history.
“It’s been no for 41 years now,” former student body president Doug Tuthill said.
But for how much longer?
The widespread racial unrest following George Floyd’s death has caused schools across the country to reconsider buildings’ names. Florida State is reviewing whether to remove Doak Campbell’s name from the Seminoles’ football stadium because of the ex-school president’s resistance to integration.
UF is forming a taskforce to look at honorary namings and add a process “to review all historical namings to determine if they should be retained or removed.” If the process examines the O’Connell Center, it will continue a conversation that’s been happening off and on since Tuthill’s days in Gainesville.
Tuthill’s concern began when a group of African-American students from his political party didn’t like the still-under-construction arena bearing the name of an admitted segregationist.
As a justice on the Florida Supreme Court, O’Connell concurred with the majority opinion blocking a black student, Virgil Hawkins, from enrolling at UF’s law school. The court ruling — three years after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled segregation unconstitutional — argued that violence would follow “if Negro students are permitted to enter the state white universities at this time” and that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Although UF integrated during O’Connell’s presidency, his tenure included significant racial tension. In April 1971, he refused to meet with students to discuss the school’s racial policies and dozens were arrested. The incident, later called “Black Thursday,” ended with 123 black students and two black faculty members leaving UF. O’Connell told The New York Times at the time that he was “no longer a segregationist,” even though he was a member of a segregated country club.
When Tuthill heard his friends’ research, the Northeast High alumnus agreed with them. The idea of a predominantly black basketball team playing in an arena named after a man who once blocked African-Americans from campus didn’t make sense.
“Kids just couldn’t get over that,” Tuthill said.
Apparently not. Tuthill won his election in 1979, and a student referendum aiming to change the arena’s name won 60 percent of the vote.
In a meeting with Tuthill that spring, O’Connell — who died in 2001 — defended his actions as a way to protect the school from violence. Tuthill came away with a compromise: Rename it the O’Connell-Hawkins Center to honor both parts of UF history.
“I thought bringing those two names together on the building would have been a sign of health and moving forward,” said Tuthill, now the president of Step Up for Students, a nonprofit scholarship organization. “Let’s do an act of reconciliation. Let’s do an act of bringing people together.”
His suggestion went nowhere. The building opened in December 1980 as the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Movements to rename it have popped up occasionally ever since, including a student government proposal in 1985 and another campaign in 2018. An online petition started after Floyd’s death in Minnesota has topped 6,000 signatures.
As UF prepares to review the historical figures honored with buildings on campus, Tuthill is optimistic his alma mater will take another look at the O’Connell Center and, perhaps, finish the fight he started 41 years ago.
“I don’t know why we couldn’t use this as an opportunity to teach people and to heal and to move forward…” Tuthill said. “I wish it had happened earlier, obviously. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future.”