By Julie M. Lucas

NAS Jacksonville Public Affairs

The theme for this year's Black History Month observance aboard NAS Jacksonville was, "The Crisis in Black Education." The event, sponsored by the NAS Jax Multicultural Awareness Committee, was held at the base chapel Feb. 22. 

The observance began with music by Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit Jacksonville employee Johnnetta Bryant performing the African-American National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." ACC Ayanna Gregg, Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility (FACSFAC) Jax, also sang "Redemption" by Bob Marley.

University of Florida (UF) Political Science Associate Professor and Director of African American Studies Program Dr. Sharon Austin served as guest speaker for the event. Austin spoke about the history of black students attending the university, as well as events still going on today.

"The point I'm trying to make about showing you the past and present is to show you the stresses that students had to deal with - in an academic environment at a very prestigious university," she said.

Austin spoke about Virgil Hawkins, a Jacksonville native, who was in a battle to attend the university for nine years and was never allowed to enroll. Hawkins eventually convinced the university to desegregate and he would drop all his court cases against the school.

"He is responsible for all the integration you see on campus today, including people like me being able to work there," Austin said. 

George Starke was the first black student to attend UF in 1958. Stark was not allowed to use the bathrooms on campus nor live on campus. He left the school after only three trimesters. 

In 2012 Stark said, "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't. I would come to the University of Florida, but I would not have been the first one to do so."

W. George Allen grew up in a segregated community and earned his law degree from UF in 1962. While attending the school he was the only black student on campus and had to share a toilet with the janitor, who objected to Allen's use of it. Other students who paved the way at the school include Stephan Mickle, who graduated in 1965 with the first undergraduate degree and Hazel Land became the first black female graduate with a law degree in 1973.

Austin finished her presentation speaking about events from 2005 through this year that include protests and other incidents with racial tones. Austin said the current enrollment of black students at the university is 6 percent for undergraduate studies and less than 2 percent on staff. Current enrollment at the law school has two first-year black students.

When an audience member asked Austin the reason for the lack of higher education among minorities, she said she felt that public school systems in many cities don't prepare students for college. Austin also answered several other audience members' questions and even encouraged them to have family members reach out to her for guidance in their educational paths.

"It is important for us to pursue higher education to be an example for those who come after us," said CMDCS John Matthews, FACSFAC Jax.