Across the tracks: A story about the railroad dividing line between FAMU and FSU – Parts 1-3
With campuses only 1.63 miles apart, the experiences at Florida A&M University and Florida State University are extraordinarily different, with some students often recognizing the divide. Although railroad tracks are the physical division between two powerhouse universities, the roots of resentment are much deeper.
Editor’s Note: This online edition includes Parts 1-3 of Across the tracks: A story about the railroad dividing line between FAMU and FSU.”
Florida A&M and Florida State universities have had a turbulent relationship since FAMU’s 1887 inception, according to some alumni. The two major universities sit at odds, with railroad tracks dividing the campuses. Students at FAMU are typically completely immersed in the culture while on campus. But once students leave the bubble, the reminders of FSU’s alleged superiority are constant.
With a territory constantly expanding into surrounding communities and a student population of more than 40,000, compared to about 9,600 students at FAMU, life across the tracks can seem other-worldly. This life seems full of opportunities and experiences that FAMU students don’t have.
Surface-level issues and stereotypes exist between both student bodies, some of which FSUnews.com attempted to address in a story from its State of The University series, which has since been removed from the website. Mainly, these issues revolved around the belief that some FSU students think they are more elite or better than FAMU students.
Eric Troy Wright has experienced the divide up-close for many years having attended both FAMU and FSU.
“There’s an uncomfortable number of FAMU students who engage in an overindulgence in the idea that FSU is superior,” said the FAMU alumnus, who is presently a doctoral student at FSU’s educational policy and program evaluation. “We’ve adopted the idea that FSU is superior.”
Others agreed that the idea of FSU being superior is a common belief among FAMU students.
While the surface issues may seem minor at first, many FAMU students understand the historical context from which these ideas emerge.
Patrick Mason, professor of economics and director of African-American studies at FSU, spent a lot of time in Tallahassee with family and friends when he was growing up.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s Tallahassee was pretty segregated,” Mason said. “We never came to FSU campus ever. We weren’t wanted, and we didn’t want to. It was kind of a two-way street. This was at the end of Jim Crow so there wasn’t a great deal of difficulty knowing where you weren’t wanted and knowing where you don’t want to be.”
Mason says that only some students and faculty at FSU understand the history between the two institutions.
“Even to know how the two universities came about, you have to know something about the history of this state,” Mason said. “Originally this was a predominately black city. The black population outnumbered whites like 8 to 1 because this was a slave county. The black population was much heavier. The black population did not want separate colleges. They wanted one college for everybody, which would’ve been overwhelmingly black. It was the state legislature, which was white controlled, that said no we’re going to have racially separate colleges.”
The Florida legislature did not want black students to attend FSU. Lawmakers actually paid for black students to leave the state if they wanted to pursue graduate degrees.
“For many years, once a black person graduated from FAMU and wanted to go to graduate school, Florida, like a lot of southern states, said ‘well you can’t go to University of Florida or FSU but we will pay for you to go to University of Michigan or Ohio State,’ ” Mason said. “A lot of black people from the south have Big Ten degrees.”
Reginald Ellis, associate professor in history at FAMU and an alumnus, says that tensions between the two student bodies didn’t really take off while FSU was the Florida State College for Women. It wasn’t until later on after it became coed and the state reluctantly desegregated higher education in 1960s.
The integration of FSU came at the expense of FAMU, with Florida state legislatures attempting to shut down FAMU so that black students could attend the “better” school.
“If you speak to individuals that graduated from Florida A&M in the late ‘60s, throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, one of the ideas that come up about Florida State was this threat of merger,” Ellis said. “This threat that we were going to lose our school to Florida State University.”
FAMU, like other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is an institution that was created to provide higher education for black people during a time when education wasn’t available to them because of reconstruction and Jim Crow.
FAMU was established as a sacred space to foster and develop some of the brightest minds in black communities in not only Florida, but other cities across the nation and black countries of the diaspora. The Civil Rights Movement was largely a demand for equal resources for black citizens in the U.S, but integration saw to the degradation of black institutions and HBCUs. Legislatures had argued that having a Negro school would carry a connotation of separatism.
In a Palm Beach Post article dated June 10, 1968, FAMU Alumni Association secretary George Conoly was quoted speaking out against the proposed FAMU “phase out.”
“Integration ought to be a two-way street, and not mean that all Negro institutions ought to be abolished,” Conoly said. “I don’t know a single thing that was formerly in the hands of whites that’s been phased out. In these phase outs of Negro schools, they’re phasing out Negro leadership as well.”
Wright also commented on the constant “looming threat of autonomy.” From speaking to many older alumni, Wright believes that a majority of the graduates from 1968 to 1978 have a deep mistrust and possible resentment for FSU.
During this time, according to Wright, a majority of FAMU students spent their undergraduate years fighting for the stability of FAMU and preventing a merging of FAMU and FSU.
This resentment between FAMU and FSU was inherited with each new generation of students and was reiterated in 1968 when the state legislature not only defunded the FAMU College of Law, but they voted to close the FAMU law school and opened a law school at Florida State University.
“Funds previously allocated for the FAMU law school were to be transferred to Florida State University’s law school,” according to the history section of FAMU’s College of Law website.
“It was simply defunded because FSU wanted a college of law,” Ellis said. “That’s one of those concepts and ideas that continue to reverberate within Rattler Nation. Many individuals are very mindful of that historical moment.”
FAMU was prohibited from opening a law school until 2000. Meanwhile FSU’s continues to grow, receiving more funding from the state and expanding its territory.
In recounting the history of FSU on FSU’s website, FAMU is never mentioned, not even the acquisition of the College of Law.
“We know the history,” Wright said. “(FAMU students and alumni) know that the first black dorm wasn’t opened until 1968. We know about the threat of merging and how FAMU alumni and students in the ‘70s literally dedicated their lives to saving the school. FSU students, including the black students, don’t know any of it.”
FAMU Dean of the Graduate College, David Jackson, thinks that a lot of these attitudes are a reflection of the larger society.
“When you have marginalized a minority people, white people can live without coming into contact with black people,” Jackson said, who is a history professor. “With black people it’s hard to live without coming into contact with white people. By extension of that, when those white people come to Tallahassee, that’s not part of their consciousness – that this mecca of knowledge is right across the street. That’s outside of their consciousness and it’s something that they never had to contemplate because of their whiteness.”
“I’m just saying that the system breeds this kind of contempt and ignorance and levels of assurance for white people to the degree that they don’t even have to know about FAMU,” Jackson continued. “It would be very difficult to live in Tallahassee and not know about FSU.”
John Marks III, former mayor of Tallahassee for 12 years, was one of the first nine African-American students at FSU’s undergraduate school in 1965.
“It was clear that we were marginalized by the students as well as the faculty,” Marks said. “It was clear that they didn’t expect, nor did they allow us to perform at a level that we knew we could perform.”
Now an adjunct professor at FAMU’s School of Journalism & Graphic Communication, Marks recalls what he refers to as his “integration process” clearly.
Marks’ first homecoming parade included a wagon paying homage to the southern confederacy, with white girls in a wagon, white boys in confederate uniforms with guns and three African-American males following the wagon dressed as slaves.
“[That incident] put a jolt in me, as to why am I coming to this place,” Marks said. He had been accepted to many HBCU’s. “I’m not going back,” he said to his mom, an educator.
After garnering friendships and immersing himself into the culture him and the other students created, he decided to stay at FSU, eventually graduating and attending FSU’s College of Law.
“There came a time when we came together as African-Americans and supported each other as a group,” Marks said. “And if it wasn’t for that, a lot of us may not have made it.”
Because of the social atmosphere at FSU, the group of nine FSU students often came to FAMU for the camaraderie, something that parallels to today. Then, FSU students, Marks said, were welcomed and accepted by the students at FAMU.
It is important to note, Marks said, there were, in fact, white students at FSU who embraced them, but it was rare.
While currently there may no longer be an agenda in the Florida state legislature to shut down FAMU, in 2015 administrators, students and faculty had to fight again to stop the split between the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.
Current FSU President John Thrasher filed an amendment to the Florida senate budget that would give an additional $3 million to the “Florida State Engineering School.” According to reports, the FAMU Board of Trustees was only made aware of the split proposal after it was already on the floor of the legislature. Students and faculty from both universities spoke out against the split and took action to prevent it from happening, but there is still a level of uncertainty on this issue.
There are other major historical events that strained the FAMU-FSU student relationship.
On a spring night in 1959, prior to integration of FSU, four white men in Tallahassee made a pact, which was later testified in court, to “go out and get a nigger girl and have an ‘all night party.’”
It is not clear whether the men were related to FSU.
This rape is documented in “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance -- A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by Danielle McGuire, in a chapter titled “It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped.”
The four men, with shotguns and switchblades, approached a parked car near Jake Gaither Park, eventually forcing four black students out of the car. Soon after, a female student, who was identified in court documents, was raped by the four boys seven times. While the court documents detail the rape and identify the victim. The FAMUAN, in accordance with the rape shield law, will not identify the victim’s name.
After hearing about the attack on the female student, FAMU student leaders and the student body at-large put together various demonstrations.
Students and alumni believe the racially-motivated rape was one of the events that contributed to the deep mistrust between student bodies.
Racism and Moments of Solidarity
In the current political climate of America, HBCU’s are seen as safe spaces for black students. FSU student and Students for a Democratic Society organizer, Regina Joseph, spoke of the way racist incidents and lack of diversity at FSU affects her mental health.
Joseph said she has “always realized” there was a division between the FAMU and FSU communities. She recalls incidences on her campus like during a Kendrick Lamar FSU homecoming concert where she heard “FSU students yelling at FAMU students that they don’t go here” and others saying they “should go back to FAMU.”
Ky’eisha Penn, a law student at Howard University, completed undergrad at FSU and received her masters at FAMU. Penn entered FSU through CARE, a program for first generation college students. While at FSU, Penn said she often had feelings of inferiority while attending the predominately white institution, but building community with other students of color helped.
“I loved my experience,” Penn said. “I learned a lot, but it did come with some frustrating times. Like things people would say on social media anonymously on a website about black people or people of color at the institution.”
The infamous website Penn referred to was called FSUACB. It was a site where FSU students posted online anonymously. Some of the messages FSU students posted were days and times they can avoid black people around town and in the Tallahassee nightlife. Many of the posts contained vulgar and racist insults toward black students at FAMU and FSU.
Joseph said she was targeted personally on one FSUACB post.
“They called me a Marxist ni**r c*nt because they were mad that Dream Defenders was on the front page of the FSView,” Joseph said.
In response to the initial lack of action from the FSU administration about the site, FSU students organized a march with FAMU students to the Capitol. Eventually the site was shut down.
Joint activism efforts between FAMU and FSU students have precedence under racial violence, like in 1999 when students from both campuses marched after FAMU was bombed twice in a three week period.
These are the moments where, in particular, the black community at FSU was able to come together with FAMU students.
A similar show of solidarity between the two student bodies occurred in 2013 after a white FSU student, Mandy Thurston posted a Vine video of FSU’s Market Wednesday showing black Greek organizations and referring to them as “#MonkeysEverywhere,” adding, “Welcome to FAMU...I mean FSU.”
The post went viral and sparked unity from both campuses.
“That type of language does not miss our [FAMU] students,” said Ellis about the racist incidences that occur on FSU campus.
Penn also recounts when the Black Student Union sign was removed from its house on FSU’s campus.
Even more recently, in 2016, 71.7 percent of FSU students voted to keep a statue on their campus of slave owner Francis Eppes, a former mayor of Tallahassee who established night watches in the streets to catch slaves.
Mason says that while black students and activists at FSU and FAMU take action to raise racial awareness, after these incidents take place, racist incidents does not typically elicit a response from FSU faculty.
“Faculty don’t always pay a whole lot of attention to that,” said Mason. “They just take it as students doing student things. There might be some concern, and students who do that will be dealt with in some form or fashion, but faculty don’t think “oh yeah we have to do something about this.”
“Some people (at FSU) don’t even like discussing race, it just creates a lot of anxiety so they just prefer not to discuss it or they think that other things are far more important,” said Mason. “Africans Americans in general are much more cognizant and much more aware of the importance of race for determining their life chances. You’re with a group that represents 13 percent of society. When you’re that small of a minority, you’re going to be aware of this at all times. When you’re majority, you’re really not aware of your majority status. You think of things from an individual perspective.”
Joseph said if she could have the perfect scenario, she would go to FAMU with FSU resources.
“It’s clear that all the resources are going to FSU,” Joseph said. “I definitely think there needs to be more resources allocated to FAMU, because there have been so many struggles of other HBCUs being shut down.”
A source of funding for both universities is the performance based funding given each year by the Board of Governors through the State University System of Florida. In 2016, FSU was given more than $79 million, where FAMU was given slightly over $25 million, based on a set of metrics.
“Some of the resource arguments and different things like that were rooted in a system that favored the white institution over the black institution,” Jackson said. “All of those are trickle down effects. The people who make the decisions and have made the decisions about funding institutions favored the white institutions. Today FSU and University of Florida have been identified as preeminent universities. That’s today. And so they get an extra $15 million and FAMU doesn’t get any of that. We have to fight with the other schools to try to keep our heads above water.”
While FAMU students are allowed to use the resources over at FSU, and FSU students have access to utilize resources on FAMU’s campus, very rarely do students visit each other’s campus.
Conflicts affecting the relationship between students at FSU and FAMU need to be addressed by the administrations, students and also the Tallahassee community at large.
“You have to realize that a vast majority of administrators in Tallahassee, the leadership, business owners are alum of one of the two universities,” Ellis said. “We are in a space now where if we don’t speak about the past or if we don’t speak about the elephant in the room, it doesn’t exist.”
Marisa Webster, 20, a sophomore at FSU from Jacksonville, Florida, has experienced the divide, but, conversely, it has not really affected her.
“The campuses are so close we should be able to go over and check things out and get together,” Webster said. “Each school is its own community.”
Wright also noted that the larger Tallahassee community has also adopted a subconscious bias where FSU is superior, and it can be seen in certain aspects of life in Tallahassee.
“When you ride around town and you see things like ‘Go Noles’ when FAMU had a game, too,” Wright said. “When you walk into Zaxby’s and you see an FSU jersey or a Seminole special, but there’s nothing for FAMU, those types of unconscious reminders drive people, whether we realize it or not.”
As for the stereotype that resources and the general experience of FSU is better, Wright disagrees, saying, “Every single facet of Florida State,” was messed up for him, including registration, parking, financial aid, book vouchers, even getting accepted into the university, where he didn’t get his acceptance letter until a week before the first day of classes.
But his main concern with FSU was having to, what he calls, “water down who he was.”
Ellis also believes that the local community surrounding both universities has not accepted FAMU in the same way that they have accepted FSU.
“Tallahassee community and Leon County community in general embraced FSU in a way that they didn’t embrace FAMU,” Ellis said. “They consider FSU as their school. FAMU is for the black students and FSU is “our” school.”
These issues and many more have contributed to what is known now as the “divide” between FAMU and FSU.
Marks believes there are still remnants of the resentment that existed decades ago, but believes things have gotten “significantly better.”
“There is absolutely more work to be done, but to suggest that we have not gotten any further than we were way back then would be a complete misstatement,” he said, referencing the diversity of both universities now.
Many agree that it is time for all stakeholders, including the Florida State legislature, and faculty and staff from both universities, to come together for the sake of the students, universities and community at-large.
According to Ellis, solutions should be under the conditions, “Where Florida A&M University feels like they’re a part of the community and treated that way by the community and treated as equal partners by Florida State University, not just on the surface but in reality.”
“All players have to be serious about solving the issues and stop acting as if the issues don’t exist,” Ellis said. “It’s going to take time, but it has to happen.
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