When asked what they know about Florida A&M’s founding, students’ most common answer is “I represent Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, Oct. 3, 1887, WHAAAT!” However, the events that led to this historic date are not common knowledge around campus.
Although the Black Archives offers extensive history about FAMU, many students said they have visited only once or twice, leaving the school’s historical record virtually unexplored.
Richard Ellis, assistant professor of history at FAMU, said he includes the school’s history in his lessons.
“I incorporate the history of FAMU in all of my courses so that my students can see that what they do everyday is making history,” said Ellis, a FAMU alumnus. “I attended FAMU in what some may consider the end of the ‘Golden age of FAMU.'”
Frederick S. Humphries was president during Ellis’ first three years at FAMU between 1999-2002. He said Humphries had recruited a high number of national achievement scholars. Other students found themselves wanting to compete inside and outside of the classroom.
“Another difference is that it appeared that more of my classmates were proud Rattlers,” said Ellis. “Although we had issues with financial aid and customer service, my classmates walked around with a FAMU aura that I have not seen since I returned as a professor.”
Ellis said the recent protest by the student body indicate that they are aware of FAMU’s history. He credits black politicians, such as Johnathan C. Gibbs, who wanted to fight disenfranchisement of blacks, with the founding of FAMU.
Therefore, Gibbs and other black politicians thought the best future for African-Americans was in education, not voting.
According to Leedell W. Neyland’s book, “Florida Agricultural And Mechanical University: A Centennial History,” black citizens made up about 47 percent of Florida’s total population in the early 1880s. By 1885, Gadsden, Jefferson and Leon counties had the largest black populations.
In April 1887, six cities, including Jacksonville, Ocala and Gainesville, tried to prove to legislature why a black college should be there. The Senate’s Education Committee eventually decided Tallahassee was the best location. Then, on Oct. 3, 1887, the State Normal College for Colored Students opened.
That same day, the State Normal College for White Students opened in DeFuniak Springs, about 70 miles east of Pensacola. Enrollment at both schools was deliberately made similar with 16 students at the white college and 15 at the black college.
Two years later, a legislative committee was formed in response to then school president Thomas De Saille Tucker’s persistent requests for dormitories and more facilities. Criticism of the school came not from the committee but from others in high official positions who believed it was too academic in nature and was not giving the type of education that blacks needed.
The legislative committee had only positive remarks about the school after a visit in February 1889. They were amazed that the school was able to survive the 1888 Yellow Fever Epidemic that struck Florida and affected the enrollment of most institutions. The committee was also astonished that the school’s enrollment grew steadily despite a lack of dormitories.
In response to the committee’s recommendations and the persistence of President Tucker, the Board of Education authorized the construction of dorms. Students were allowed into these dorms on Jan. 1, 1890. Prior to this, students had to take up residence with private families. The construction of on-campus housing solidified the college as a permanent educational institution, relinquishing it of its experimental status.
These little known facts are the base of FAMU’s entire history. Unfortunately, most students are unaware of these events. Shaela Reed, 21, a junior psychology student from Orlando, said she is not familiar with the story.
“I never heard any of this, not at orientation, not anywhere.” Reed said. “Kind of makes me wonder what else I don’t know.”
Other students admitted to being uninformed about the events surrounding FAMU’s founding.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Darius Nelson, 22, a political science student from Jacksonville. “All I know is the date and how many people there were on the first day.”
Students do not appear as concerned with FAMU’s past as they do its future. Furthermore, students seem to know that their university is historically relevant and among the most prestigious of it’s kind due to its role in educating young black men and women.
Now 124 years old, FAMU has undergone numerous renovations and two name changes; one in 1909 to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, and again in 1953 when it attained university status and became Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Now at the forefront of historically black colleges and universities, FAMU continues to set trends and make history.