The fires of FAMC


Florida A&M University enters its 125th anniversary today, celebrating a long legacy of education, tradition and triumph over obstacles. 

The university was once FAMC, a historically black college founded by two professors. Nearly 90 years ago in October of 1923, FAMC faced an obstacle that would prove to be one of its most trying times. FAMC was at unrest.

On Oct. 18,1923 flames roared through the rooftops of dorms and buildings, leaving their contents burned to ashes. Debris filled the campus. The fires destroyed Duval Hall, the main building that housed the library, administrative offices and  the cafeteria. Diamond Hall and the mechanical arts building were also ruined.

Students refused to attend class and continued to strike until Oct. 23.

The story of FAMC’s great fires is one of the historical events that caused students to stand up for their university.

FAMC’s then president, Nathan B. Young, was challenged by the Board of Control to stay on the industrial education path, despite his background that supported the opposite.

Young received a liberal arts degree from Overland College. And although he worked with Booker T. Washington, a promoter of industrial education, Young agreed with W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of a “Talented Tenth,” the theory that only a select group of individuals should get educated to lead the masses.

When Young became the president of the university, the Board of Control argued that he was not an advocate of industrial education but one of liberal arts. They wanted the students to be trained to be carpenters, blacksmiths and mechanics.

The board claimed that Young did not make the students work or be active. They also knew that Young wanted to undermine their desire for the students to receive industrial training.

Young was forced to resign soon after. 

In 1923, William H.A. Howard, one of Young’s students, was appointed as interim president.

Upon entry, Howard faced the difficult decision to follow in Young’s footsteps or to side with the Board and continue pushing the industrial learning traditions of the university. 

Students opposed Howard’s administration because they felt he did not support them and wanted to change the core curriculum. They also disliked his making them to clean corridors and maintain common campus areas for free. Young had allowed them to do so but in exchange for room and board.

Soon after, a female student went to a white-owned restaurant, but was refused service. After she insulted the owner, he followed the girl outside and began “flogging” her with a lemon squeezer.

The girl complained to Howard, but her grievance was ignored. Because of the racial climate in Tallahassee at the time, J.T. Diamond, secretary of higher learning, urged Howard to expel the student.

“If Howard gives up and resigns now, or the board gives up its policy to make the institution function as a mechanical and agricultural college as well as academic, then the ‘Classical Niggers’ will have won, in my opinion, what the strike was started for. For this very reason, it seems to me that the deputies should be kept there until the damage is seemingly passed,” wrote Diamond in response to the flogging victim’s claims.

The board backed Howard’s decisions entirely and blamed the students for the fires. 

Howard, the board nor the State University System of Florida could have predicted the fiery repercussions of their actions. Howard was pushed out of office before even being considered for the presidency.

In 1924 J.R.E. Lee took on the task of rebuilding the university’s image and campus structures. Lee introduced Greek organizations and even created the term “Rattlers.” His plan and apporach appeased the students by giving them a bigger role in the university while keeping the industrial training curriculum.

Students, faculty and alumni would eventually regard Lee’s 1924-1944 administration as the “golden years” of FAMU. 

Today, the university is cleaning up the mess of last year’s events. The headstrong leadership values instilled in the student body could be what FAMU needs to overcome, as done in the past.

“One thing is certain – FAMU is on the cusp of greatness,” said Reginald Ellis, associate history professor. “We do not collapse. We are a strong people.”