The Great Black Hope

Percy Luney reached the Citrus Bowl an hour later than he'd expected, slightly overwhelmed by the Mardi Gras atmosphere of that day's Florida Classic, the annual football game between Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman College.

The delay only served to hurry his purpose. Inside the stadium, he negotiated with a guard to gain access to the field, and soon found his way to the 50-yard line. There, in a pregame ceremony with local officials, the man who last April was named dean of FAMU's revived School of Law accepted a $1 million private donation to support its presence here.

From the stands, proud, hopeful eyes looked on. But perhaps none are prouder than those who know the history and struggle of that law school in Florida's racist, not-so-distant past. For when its walls start to rise next year, the school will be more than a beacon on the downtown landscape.

"It will be a magnificent place for African Americans," says South Florida congressman Alcee Hastings, who grew up in Altamonte Springs and graduated from FAMU law school before it was shuttered 33 years ago. "It will bring an economic boost to the Parramore district; and, overall, Orlando benefits." In addition, Hastings says, "It closes the loop on a harm that should not have been done."

It's a story that Luney knows all too well, and which helped to bring him here. What he's discovering now, however, is that renewed hope is riding on him, too.

In the summer of 1968, as the last group of students to graduate from FAMU's law school prepared to take its finals, the Florida Legislature gave permission to remove more than 6,000 books from the school's law library. Their destination: the new law library at predominately white Florida State University five minutes away.

It was a stunning, insulting end to what had been only the fifth historically black law school in the country. "It was a psychological thing," says Arthenia Joyner, a state legislator who was one of two females in that 1968 graduating class. "The reality was there: The law school was not going to exist any more. We were getting ready to take our finals, and they're boxing up our books. It was all transpiring before our eyes."

But many FAMU graduates never considered the state's decision to be final. During the 1990s, black lawmakers filed eight bills that attempted to win money back to re-establish the law school. Finally last year, with the Republican-dominated Legislature hoping to bolster Gov. Jeb Bush's image with black voters, lawmakers agreed to fund two new law schools, one in Miami and one that eventually landed in Orlando.

Now, as FAMU administrators prepare to reopen their law school next fall, officials expect a concurrent renewed enthusiasm for black culture and black pride.

Already there has been much clamoring about the school, which will hold its first year of classes on seven floors of a currently vacant downtown office building at 1 N. Orange Ave. (The permanent location will finish construction in 2003 at what is now a city-owned parking lot on Hughey Avenue at Washington Street, immediately west of Interstate 4.) More than 600 people, mostly from Florida, have requested applications for admission. They will compete for 150 day-time slots (75 the first year) and 30 part-time evening openings.

As evidence of the growing interest, Luney has been presented twice to the Chamber of Commerce crowd, and he has been invited to speak to law firms across the region. "They want to know what kind of impact `the school` will have on them," the new dean says.

Administrators temper the enthusiasm in the African-American community by stressing that FAMU is not a black college but an "historically black" college, one that will not discriminate against anyone. The law school will have the same admission requirements as FAMU and the other nine public universities in Florida. Non-black students will have the same opportunity to be admitted as African-American students.

But by being among the first institutions of higher education to have offered an education to African Americans -- which once was against the law in many Southern states -- the 105 historically black universities in America have assumed a sort of mythological role. The schools are credited, almost single-handedly, with decreasing the illiteracy rate among black people from 79 percent in 1879 to 11 percent in 1940. That's not because more blacks were going to college, but because educated black people took on responsibility for teaching young black students.

Black colleges also have traditionally been linked to the crusade for equality and fairness in America, even as other institutions -- such as the courts system �failed. During the civil-rights movement, four students at North Carolina A&T (Jessie Jackson's alma mater) began the sit-in movement when they refused to leave a Woolworth's lunch counter in February 1960. Students in other cities quickly followed their lead. By the end of the summer, more than 30 southern cities -- including Greensboro, N.C., home of North Carolina A&T -- had integrated their restaurants.

It was not uncommon to find faculty and administrators mentoring activists. Benjamin E. Mays, president of More-house College, has been credited with instilling Martin Luther King Jr. with a social consciousness. "Much of the national and local leadership `has been` a product of these institutions," says Henry Drewry, a senior advisor to the Mellon Foundation, who recently co-authored "Stand and Prosper: Private Black Colleges and Their Students."

How that history will translate to the new FAMU school remains to be seen. Orlando does not have a strong track record for activism -- black or otherwise. "Orlando has always been backwater in a lot of ways," says Michael Hoover, a Seminole Community College political scientist who grew up in the west Orlando neighborhood of Pine Hills. "Even white participation has been minimal. There has always been a sort of old South attitude where people are expected to know their place."

As a result, the black community is debating whether the law school will be the beacon of enlightenment many hope for. "I'm waiting and wishing that change will come," says Charlie Jean Salter, a retired Valencia Community College professor who graduated from a FAMU master's program in 1963. "Maybe the law school is the thing that brings that change. But you need people who are broad-minded, who can see the problems and do something about them."

Though racism is often more difficult to identify than when Orlando was part of the Jim Crow South, a host of problems still afflicts much of the black community -- problems that enterprising professionals might help overcome. Economic disparities remain a concern. Nationally, the annual median salary for black families is $25,000 compared with $45,400 for Asian families and $40,600 for white. African-American households are more likely to be headed by a single parent, more likely to receive welfare and more likely to have premature babies or infants with low birth weights. Blacks have the highest mortality rate of the races and they are almost as likely as Hispanics to die by homicide.

Other concerns are in the legal arena. In Orange County, blacks make up 18 percent of the population yet comprise 48 percent of the felony arrests and 41 percent of the bookings at the Orange County Jail. Fifteen of 32 persons (46 percent) shot by Orange County deputies in the last four years have been black.

The community has been especially outraged over two shootings in the past year. One was Andrea Hall, a hostage accidentally killed by an Orlando Police Department sharpshooter who mistook Hall for her captor. The other was Melvin Holland Jr., a 21-year-old unarmed Pine Hills man who tried to run away from an Orange County deputy last July. Though both of the policemen involved in the incidents were cleared of wrongdoing, black leaders have questioned the shootings.

The Orange County branch of the NAACP will encourage the new law school to investigate Central Florida's legal system. "We need to take a hard look, top to bottom, from arrest to sentencing," says branch President Gerald Bell.

When FAMU officials began interviewing for the person to head their law school, they soon focused on Luney, the former head of North Carolina Central School of Law. A 52-year-old native of Washington, D.C., Luney dazzled FAMU administrators in a series of meetings with the provost, president, council of deans of the 12 colleges and the student government association.

"Mr. Luney outscored every candidate in virtually every category," says Henry Lewis, dean of the Florida A&M Pharmacy School, who headed the search committee.

For the past two years, Luney was president of the National Judicial College, a non-profit institution located on the University of Nevada-Reno campus. The school trained judges in the U.S. and about 150 other countries. Luney left the college for personal reasons and thought about returning to teaching. When he first heard about the FAMU job, he was hesitant.

But Luney had a special connection to FAMU, one that made him think again about applying to become dean of the law school. In 1977, Luney was part of the transition team that ushered in Walter J. Leonard as incoming president of Fisk University, the oldest university in Nashville. Fisk graduates include W.E.B. DuBois, the late author, activist and co-founder of the NAACP.

The outgoing president was George W. Gore, who happened to be the dean at FAMU when the university lost the law school in 1968. Over the course of the six-month transition period, Gore told Luney the story of the FAMU law school. It is a story few in the black Florida community have forgotten.

The school was founded in 1951 because state legislators were afraid that blacks soon would be admitted to Florida's predominantly white public universities. A black teacher named Virgil Darnell Hawkins had begun a series of court actions after being rejected by the University of Florida law school in 1949. Though Hawkins was largely unsuccessful in court, Florida legislators and the Board of Control (later the Board of Regents) became anxious. Instead of admitting blacks to Florida universities, they created professional schools at FAMU. They also continued a long-standing practice of paying tuition for black students to attend out-of-state colleges. (Hawkins, incidentally, was eventually admitted to the Florida Bar in 1976.)

Like every black college across America -- public or private -- FAMU's law school was grossly underfunded. For the duration of the school's existence, from 1951 to 1968, the Legislature never increased the school's budget, allocating only $97,000 per year for salaries and other expenses, according to the "History of Florida A&M College of Law," a book written last year by Larry O. Rivers.

Then, as Florida legislators and university officials saw that America's legal system was finally forcing integration, they rushed to build FSU's law school and dismantle FAMU's. "Basically, FAMU was being told that it could send its students to FSU, but FSU would not send its students to FAMU," Luney says.

Then-Florida Gov. William Haydon Burns and members of the chancellor's office avoided telling blacks that their law school was closing. Instead, in July 1965, Burns sent a letter to the dean of the school, saying, "It is my understanding that this school will continue to operate for the time being as usual." The comment was disingenuous given that Burns had authored a letter a month earlier commenting to the Board of Control and chancellor's office that the "law school at Florida A&M apparently is to be phased out within the next several years concurrent with the establishment of a law school at Florida State University."

The misleading comments and apparent back-room deals were what surprised Rivers most while researching his book. "The dishonesty really stood out," he says.

The all-white Board of Control wanted Gore to close the law school. When he didn't, the board closed it for him.

Despite the deception and biased attitudes, African Americans stop short of calling the closing of the law school a racist act. "I wouldn't want to put that label on it," Rivers says. "It was more like insensitivity. Some of the people who wanted it closed thought they had good intentions. They wanted integration and thought this was the way to go about it, forgetting that black schools were repositories for black arts and culture."

Luney says that Gore was sad when relating the details of the FAMU closing. But it moved Luney enough that he reconsidered the FAMU job. Luney says he probably would be teaching elsewhere if not for the sense of fate that Gore instilled in him. "If not for Dr. Gore, I wouldn't be here," he says. "God gave me a chance to bring it back to him."

People who know Luney's connection to Gore, and thus to the FAMU law school, see a kind of circle-is-unbroken theme in the selection of Luney to head the new school. "It's funny how things like that happen," says Emerson R. Thompson, chief judge of the Florida 5th District Court of Appeal. "If you look at `Luney's` background, look at other things that happened to him, he's probably the best person in the country to lead that school. It's one of those things, call it happenstance or divine intervention, where everything works together."

Indeed, it's difficult to find anyone who has a harsh word about Luney. He has received praise for his tenure at North Carolina Central's law school, where he taught for 18 years and was employed as the dean for four years.

More than likely -- and with any luck -- FAMU will be a reflection of the Durham, N.C., campus that Luney led. North Carolina Central was rated by The Princeton Review as the fourth-toughest law school in the country to be admitted to. In 1995, The National Jurist rated the campus as the most accommodating for female students and faculty members. Other law schools have modeled their clinical programs, which provide legal help to indigent people, after those run by North Carolina Central.

Under Luney's tenure, the law school was the only one between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta to offer night classes. And the school had a mix of students. Though NCC's undergraduate population was 90 percent black, the law school's 360 students were 46 percent white.

Even so, among North Carolina's five law schools, NCC had the lowest percentage of graduates who passed the bar exam the first time they took it. The school's 73 percent passage rate over the past decade doesn't compare favorably with Florida's top three law schools, Florida, FSU and Stetson, whose graduates typically score above 85 percent. North Carolina Central grads also have had trouble getting hired by North Carolina's top law firms. Many students have had to open their own firms or travel out of state to find their first jobs.

Part of that was by design, however. During the admissions process, North Carolina Central administrators sought students who wanted to work for clients who typically have difficulty finding a lawyer, or who have difficulty paying one -- clients who live in the inner city or in rural areas of the state. Consequently, not all of North Carolina Central's students had outstanding grade-point averages or scores on its entrance exam. Administra-tors looked for students with character and leadership abilities, who had work experience and participated in extracurricular activities.

Luney expects a similar pool of students at FAMU, where tuition costs and high student loans won't prohibit graduates from fulfilling public-service roles.

"It's not a typical law school in the sense that there aren't very many state law schools opening up," Luney says. "Students are coming out of private law schools already in debt. How do you start a career if you can't get a job with a top law firm? How can you afford to open an office, particularly if you have a family? That really narrows your options."

If FAMU's will be an atypical law school, its dean also is not your ordinary administrator. At least not the ivory-tower dean one might expect from a Harvard law grad whose expertise, in addition to natural-resources law, is the Japanese culture and legal system, legal ethics and international law.

Luney knows his reputation is neither stodgy conservative nor fire-and-brimstone hellraiser. "I'm more of a congenial dean," he says. "I'm a people-person dean."

It's clear he likes to talk. As several visitors prepare to leave from his downtown office, he continues to chat about the legal system, FAMU and the political system.

It's good that Luney has a gift for gab because a lot of people will be counting on his speaking ability. Very shortly, he will be the most visible African American in Orlando, if not all of Central Florida. Some blacks take it a step farther. District 6 Orlando City Commissioner Ernest Page says Luney will be the most visible black person in the state.

On the other hand, Page says, Luney will be only one of many black leaders in Orlando. The city's police chief, fire chief and head of the airport authority as well as two city commissioners and a county commissioner are black. "He's going to fit into an already established African-American leadership," Page says.

But Hoover, the SCC political-science professor, disagrees that such leadership already exists. He says there's a difference between true political engagement and being a figurehead.

Hoover says there are two kinds of minority influence: active diversity and passive diversity. Passive diversity is what Hoover describes as window dressing -- the festivals and parties that allow public officials to claim that their community is indeed diverse. Active diversity, on the other hand, is the term he uses when a community involves minorities, when they are able to make decisions and influence public policy on a comparable level to whites.

"That has yet to occur here," Hoover says. "Having someone in office does not necessarily mean they have power and influence in their positions. Holding office doesn't mean they have strong connections to certain communities. They could be as cut off from Afro-American communities as white officials."

If black Orlando officials are as powerless as Hoover suggests, that leaves a vacuum in the power structure that could well be filled by Percy Luney. Only Luney doesn't expect to use his office as a bully pulpit. He won't be appearing at city-council meetings or lobbying the county commission on behalf of black issues. "My feeling is, stay away from politics," he says. "We as a law school have to work with administrations whether they are Democrat or Republican."

Luney says advocacy isn't the appropriate role for a law school, anyway. "A law school is apolitical," he says. "What it should be teaching is professionalism and a desire to serve the public. Students are gaining a tremendous license with a law degree, a degree that comes with a great deal of public service."

Like he did at North Carolina Central, Luney will emphasize community service. He is certain the law school will have criminal and civil clinics, at which students pair up with faculty members to tackle legal cases. Luney expects the clinics to do $3 million in legal work each year they are open.

Also, depending on faculty, FAMU might have an entrepreneurial center to provide legal advice to small-business owners, as well as the hospitality, sports- entertainment and banking industries.

But foremost in his mind are the clinics that will help indigent clients with a range of legal needs. Among them: obtaining a mortgage, establishing wills, setting up trusts, buying property, landlord-tenant squabbles, scams on the elderly, adoptions, powers of attorney, foreclosures and bankruptcy.

The thought of young lawyers working for free is exciting for professionals who are already on the front lines of the legal system. Orange County Public Defender Bob Wesley anticipates that FAMU students will work closely with his office. "When `Luney` throws out the dishwater, I'm going to get soaking wet," Wesley says. He doesn't expect the school to be a cost-saver since his attorneys will still have to sit in court with students and oversee their work. But the advantage will be in watching which students are capable of criminal defense, and offering them a job when they graduate. "We'll get the pick of the litter," he says.

If Luney is successful in enticing graduates to work in rural counties, they will fill a sorely met need. Three counties in Florida -- Glades, Lafayette and Liberty -- currently have only two practicing attorneys each, according to the Florida Bar.

In terms of advancing the black community, the law school should give youths an opportunity to identify with black professionals in their own community. Victoria Taylor Carter is a North Carolina Central law-school graduate who worked under Luney for several years as an admissions coordinator. She says he allowed her to knock off work early on Fridays so she could read to school kids in Durham. "Being in the community -- not just the African- American community -- exposed these children to wonderful lawyers of color," she says.

The law school will also have drawing power for young people who might doubt they can achieve a professional career. "It's going to communicate to those who aspire to be lawyers that this is within their reach," says Arthenia Joyner, the Tampa lawmaker. "When something there is tangible, it's not as far-fetched as it might seem."

The law school also can foster a deeper understanding of what it means to be black, no matter what race a student is. Many black lawmakers, such as Alcee Hastings and Arthenia Joyner, graduated from black law schools. But so have some white lawmakers. The best example is the governor of North Carolina, Michael Easley, who was in North Carolina Central's class of 1976.

"You have to understand what that does for the black community," says James Perry, a Seminole County circuit judge who plays golf with Luney. "If the governor has been through a black law school, he has gained a particular sensitivity to black issues and culture. He knows how to relate to black people. Ã? If leaders have been sensitized to black culture, they know how to talk about black issues."

Luney says the law school might host forums on issues affecting Orlando. And he'll encourage dissent and opposing views, even when selecting students.

"In a good law school, you want a class that spans the political spectrum," Luney says. "You want students who analyze from every point of view. Their political positions enhance classroom discussions. It would be a boring law school if we tolerated only one political view, and only one political view was provided."

As for Luney, he'll likely hang around until the law school is accredited, which will probably take three years. After that, don't look for him in the courtroom.

"I prefer working with students," he says. "The one time someone mentioned `being a judge`, I turned and went in another direction. Of course, I can't say my goal in life was to be an administrator, either. Sometimes things are left up to circumstance. I'll step down and return to the classroom sometime in the future."

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