History and the people who make it: Daniel E. Harmeling

transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the fourth in a continuing series of excerpts from transcripts in the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. A lifelong civil rights activist, Dan Harmeling still lives in Gainesville. He was interviewed by Marna Weston on February 13, 2009.

Activism on campus began early in the summer of 1963. It was inspired by the local civil rights movement within the black community and through the organization of the NAACP. The NAACP Youth Council was picketing segregated restaurants and the Florida Theatre in downtown Gainesville because of their segregation and their not serving of black people and no admission to the movie theatre.

The particular one we were interested in on campus was the College Inn, which is now right across the street, on University Ave. from what I think is Buckman Hall, and maybe now it’s called the Purple Porpoise. It was a big cafeteria style restaurant at the time and beginning in the fall of 1962 when the first undergraduate black students were admitted to the university at the freshman level…these students of course were refused admission to the restaurant.

As the picketing began with the NAACP, a group was formed on campus called the Student Group for Equal Rights. One of the first things, it was one of our black students, Jesse Dean, who was a part of the Student Group for Equal Rights, and of course he could not eat at the College Inn and it was determined that a course of action would be to set up a picket, a very regular picket of maybe five to ten people, very orderly, in front of the College Inn restaurant. That began during the summer. We did public relations to help the student body understand what we were doing. We put out a newsletter called Common Sense. We built up some momentum; the organization may have represented fifteen or twenty students, maybe a total of forty or more picketed…From the very beginning we had a faculty advisor, Marshall Jones, a professor with a dual appointment at the medical school through the department of psychiatry as well as through the department of psychology at the university. There were maybe half a dozen of us who became very active in the local NAACP and we joined with the organization. Some of the names that come to mind are Charles Chestnut, who has been politically involved in the community. He was president of the NAACP Youth Council, and Rev. T.A. Wright was president of the Adult Branch.

One thing that happened was, we started negotiating for desegregation of the Florida Theatre. There was an attempt always at negotiating rather than an in-your-face kind of thing. There was a biracial committee that had been set up in Gainesville but that didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. The only thing that seemed to work was when there was activism, a picket line that seemed to spur negotiations. In that case, at the Florida Theatre, there was sort of a settlement that they would do, this one person or two black people would be allowed in on a Saturday afternoon and if there was no problem maybe they’d try three people next time but it would be in the afternoon. And if there was no problem, then maybe they’d try 1 or 2 black people at night and then see.

As it turned out, it seemed to be a bunch of nonsense, so negotiations were broken. That desegregation didn’t take place until the passage of the public accommodations laws in the summer of 1964. Which brings to mind that there were people from our university, students and faculty also joined the 1964 protests in St. Augustine joining Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Marshall Jones was a part of that, my brother Jim and I were also part of that, but there were other names: Judith Brown, Dana Swan, these were all students at the university. A professor who’s still around, David Chalmers also was jailed for a while in St. Augustine as part of these protest.…

In 1965 when we formed our political organization called the Freedom Party, we also had a place just across University Ave. and we named that place Freedom Forum. The police broke into Freedom Forum one night at three in the morning and took out boxes of literature as we found out later on. The only mistake they made was, someone observed at the all-night laundry across the street, came over the next morning and let us know the police were there. So a couple of representatives went down to the police station and said they certainly wanted to find out what it was that the police had reason to break into Freedom Forum. Who authorized this? The police chief apologized and said that was a mistake and they brought everything back.

A student was assigned a science project from the black high school, Jesse Dean, one of the first five black undergraduates. It was through Jesse that Marshall learned about the NAACP, started getting active in doing some of the things with them, together with his wife Beverly. Then when Marshall had an opportunity to come here, Jesse transferred as a junior to the University of Florida. Jesse also went on to get a master’s degree through the Department of Anthropology. Jesse Dean, when the draft came and he got his draft notice, here one of first black students getting his master’s degree, got his draft notice and went to Canada. Jesse Dean to this day still lives in Canada. For many, many years couldn’t even come back until I think they passed amnesty when Jimmy Carter was president.

The university, by the way, has always been thought of as a leader in the South in activism in the Civil Rights Movement. That’s why this manuscript of Dr. Jones is called Berkeley of the South, because it was regarded that way.

We formed a group called Committee for Student Recruitment and we traveled the state to black high schools to seek out students. How were they even going to know that the University of Florida was desegregated?

We felt compelled to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, because not only was it freedom for black people, but it was a freedom for us. We realized that as they were segregated from white, black people, white people were segregated as well. We could be thought of as breaking the law if we did not adhere to the Jim Crow or the legal segregation.

Marshall [Jones] ran into problems with the university as his appointment was to be made permanent. He did not have tenure, but he had all the academic credentials, he was publishing constantly, he was endorsed for tenure by his department, by the medical school, by every academic level — until you got to Dean Grinter and J. Wayne Reitz. Dean Grinter, the dean of the graduate school, [namesake] of Grinter Hall, yes and J. Wayne Reitz was president of the university and dean of the graduate school. They turned it down. They sent it back and they repeated it and again, unanimous endorsements. They sought some people out to see if they could somehow discredit Marshall Jones and they couldn’t find it. But they refused to do it. Then they took another factor, they couldn’t keep him from tenure with his academic credentials.

They said that Marshall Jones had undue influence on students, including a particular family from Orlando. That Marshall had caused one student to marry a black woman. He influenced, unduly influenced, that was me, to marry a black woman. So, in 1968, he was denied tenure and he appealed it. As far as I know, the university association, or there is some academic national group that actually censured the University of Florida for that, encouraging faculty to avoid positions at the University of Florida because of the circumstances in the firing of Marshall Jones. So Marshall Jones went on to take an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

UF President J. Wayne Reitz kicked me out of school, he kicked Judy Brown out of school. They dropped my brother Jim, as soon as he finished running for student body president, said he didn’t show enough interest. He had to fight his way back in.”

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.htm.


Comments are closed.