FAMU celebrates 121 years

The past and present joined Friday to commemorate the founding of Florida A&M University 121 years ago.

Former FAMU presidents, Walter L. Smith and Fred Gainous, shared the Lee Hall stage with President James H. Ammons, who invoked the memory of the school’s founders and urged students, staff, faculty and administrators to continue excellence and commitment to the school’s ideals.

Ammons said those ideals are exemplified in the life and work of the convocation speaker, state Sen. Alfred “Al” Lawson, a FAMU graduate elected to the Florida Legislature in 1982.

Lawson served 18 years in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate. Speakers talked about the fact that the building in which the convocation was held, Lee Hall, had once fallen into disuse. Many other buildings have also been renovated thanks to state funds secured through Lawson’s efforts.

During his speech, Lawson commended the FAMU community for its commitment to excellence. He said it was the commitment born out of great faith, which enabled the school to create so many leaders. For his contributions, Lawson received the President’s Award.

In paying tribute to Lawson, Ammons stressed the importance of FAMU’s key allies and supporters in the Legislature. That’s where the seed for the institution that is now FAMU, was first planted.

The school was created as the State Normal College of Colored Students three years after passage of House Bill 133 in 1883, which established a white normal school in Gainesville, and a colored normal school in Jacksonville. However, the state decided to relocate the school to Tallahassee.

The passage of this bill came after the election of Thomas Van Renssaler Gibbs to the Legislature in 1884. Gibbs, a Duval County educator, realized the importance of creating a place of higher education for people of color. Thomas Desaile Tucker was chosen to be the first president of the school. Gibbs decided to join Tucker as the second faculty member of the school.

The original college was housed in a single white-framed building and had three departments of study and recreation on Copeland Street until it was relocated to its present location. FAMU, originally named the State College for Colored Students, began on Oct. 3, 1887 with 15 students and two instructors. FAMU has grown to more than 12,000 students and over 600 faculty members. The name, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, was changed to FAMU in 1953. Ammons is the school’s 10th president. Smith, FAMU’s seventh president, served from 1977 to 1985; Gainous, the ninth president, led the university from 2002 to 2004.

Several organizations were involved in the convocation, including the FAMU Board of Trustees, the alumni association, and the Student Government Association. The University Concert Choir entertained the audience with several songs and after the indoor ceremony, the dignitaries went outside to lay a wreath at the eternal flame.

Many students filled the auditorium to embrace the history and tradition Friday. Some came on their own, while others came at the urging of their instructors.

Tameka Williams, a freshman pre-pharmacy student, was asked to by her history teacher to write a paper on the ceremony.

However, Williams said she would have come anyway because she wanted to see what it was all about.

Other students, such as Iman Sandifer and Demetria Henderson, came to appreciate the legacy of the school and to be involved in the celebration of the school’s 121st birthday.

Henderson, a junior who is a member of the President’s Ambassadors, said she always attends these school functions. She said, “They revitalize the school spirit, bring back school pride, and pay tribute to those who came before us.”