FAMU Law: Remixing the Recurring Struggle for Equality

“It was a devastating feeling to see your school emasculated before your very eyes,” Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner told HBCU Digest. Sen. Joyner, alumna of the original Florida A&M University College of Law, recalled taking finals when people began removing books from FAMU’s library to take to Florida State University College of Law. In Tallahassee, as civil rights battles continued, the “widely held perception” was that there was no need for two law schools.

FAMU, an institution premised on “excellence with caring,” equipped Senator Joyner with an undergraduate and legal education to become the leader she is. The longtime attorney and public servant recalled being “a person and not a number” at FAMU. That individualized attention helped history.

Joyner became the first African American female attorney in Hillsborough County, Florida and is the longest African American female member of the Florida Bar. Her equality activism is documented from her collegiate days to present day.

And still, the struggle continues. In Florida, many people are unaware of uncomfortable history, like shuttering one state law school to start another.

FAMU College of Law was established in 1949. By 1954, FAMU Law’s inaugural class graduated. A little more than a decade later, the switcheroo occurred. The Board of Regents banned FAMU from admitting law students.

FAMU Law’s last class from the original Tallahassee law school graduated in 1968. With funds rerouted to FSU and a FAMU enrollment ban, more than 30 years passed without Rattler Law graduates. Ultimately, aggressive lawmakers, Florida’s former governor Jeb Bush and the legal community devised a solution. “Interest convergence,” a phrase coined by critical race theory father Derrick Bell, was afoot.

In 2000, FAMU College of Law was re-established in Orlando and Florida International University College of Law began in Miami. At the time, a third of black students in the state university system attended FAMU and half of Latino students in the state university system attended FIU. Both law schools were created as pathways to improving Florida’s paltry diversity statistics in law practice.

Current headlines inspire questions about how FAMU can become better. Public leadership battles incite skepticism about schools, and gendered micro-management makes institutions seem draconian. In a cultural climate that needs all hands on deck, it is unwise for university meetings and documents to seem more egocentric than academic.

According to Senator Joyner, “The number one goal is the education of the students.”

Of BOT and university president discord, she added, “It’s about sitting down and working it out.” Senator Joyner and other lawmakers, who are also FAMU alumni, penned a letter to the Florida Board of Governors attacking questionable BOT interactions with President Elmira Mangum.

Even drama can’t reverse FAMU’s legacy or its law school’s against-the-odds narrative. Ten years ago the first graduates of the re-established law school received their doctoral hoods. This spring’s graduates became the 11th college of law class. FAMU Law’s alumni base exceeds 1,000 people. In the past five years, FAMU graduated more African American lawyers than every other law school in Florida combined.

All of this is not to imply that racial, ethnic, and institutional disharmony will go away. But, as America keeps diversifying, higher education must address the needs of heterogeneous groups. Through legal training, we can confront disparate violence and policing, xenophobic and racist immigration practices, and the racial callousness that keeps black people’s obituaries as daily news.

History repeats itself. When the attacks are multi-faceted, our best warriors will be, too. We know education remains a transformative tool for the good fight – that wins.

“Things have gotten better,” Senator Joyner said. “We have to make sure we don’t go back.”

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