UF’s road to diversity

Published: January 23rd, 2012

Category: Alumni Affairs

By Melanie Stawicki Azam

Reuben Brigety, M.D., the UF COM’s first African-American graduate, stands with medical students Dan Alexis and Jessica Covington. Alexis and Covington were two of the current UF COM students who attended Brigety’s Jan. 12 History of Medicine lecture. Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Reuben Brigety, M.D., began his journey in 1965 as the first African-American student to graduate from the University of Florida College of Medicine, but the college’s road to diversity wasn’t without its challenges.

In fact, at the end of his first year of medical school, Brigety said he was given the option of repeating his first year or transferring to a historically black medical school.

“I said I’ll repeat the first year,” said Brigety, who was determined not to give up. He and classmate Earl Cotman, M.D. were the first two African-Americans to graduate from the UF College of Medicine in 1970.

The Jacksonville obstetrician-gynecologist told his story to a roomful of students, alumni, faculty and staff — including Michael L. Good, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine — as part of the college’s History of Medicine lecture series,.

Brigety, born in 1944, grew up in Daytona Beach during Florida’s Jim Crow segregation laws. But early on, the idea of attending UF was planted in his mind when his grandmother told him about Virgil D. Hawkins, an African-American who tried to attend UF’s law school in 1949, but was denied admission. But Hawkins paved the way for George Starke, UF’s first African-American law student in 1958.

“I guess the imprint was there of the University of Florida,” he said. “I guess the imprint was there that this was something we couldn’t do, but something we were trying to do.”

The Hon. Stephan Mickle, one of Brigety’s best friends who grew up with him in Daytona, also broke racial barriers at UF. Now a federal judge for the Northern District of Florida, Mickle became the first African-American to receive an undergraduate degree from UF in 1965 and the second black student to graduate from the UF College of Law in 1970. His wife, Evelyn Moore Mickle, became the first African-American graduate of the UF College of Nursing in 1967.

“Students wouldn’t talk to him, teachers wouldn’t engage him, people wouldn’t study with him,” Brigety said. “So I will always thank the judge for paving the road to diversity at the University of Florida.”

John Downs, M.D., a 1969 UF COM alumnus, said he was one of two northerners in the class. The Illinois native remembered going to a local laundry with Brigety to drop off some shirts.

A woman at the counter said, “We don’t do colored shirts.” Downs said he began to pull his non-white shirts out, but Brigety knew what the woman really meant – that she would not serve blacks – and he suggested they leave.

Although it wasn’t a welcoming environment, Brigety said he realized years later there were people who were pulling for him at UF, even if it wasn’t always obvious.

As a student, Brigety encountered Hugh M. “Smiley” Hill, M.D., the college’s longtime associate dean for student and alumni affairs, and he recalled having to reluctantly ask Hill for a $1,500 loan to get married during medical school.

“(Hill) said, ‘Brigety, I never thought you’d get this far, but you fooled me,’” recalled Brigety. “‘I’m not going to give you $1,500 — here’s $4,000.’”

First-year medical student Lauren Simmons said Brigety’s talk was energizing and illustrated the importance of determination, following your dreams and “to not let anyone stand in your way.”

After graduation, Brigety completed his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Duval Medical Center in Jacksonville, and his feelings warmed toward his alma mater over the years.

“Life is full of chapters; there are many chapters in the book and some of them are bad chapters,” Brigety said. “But if you give up, you know where that book is going to end — on that bad chapter.”