Black History Month is not only a time to pay specific attention to the hardships, triumphs and contributions of black people in America, but also a time to pay tribute to the history of black students at Eckerd College.
Dr. Howard E. Kennedy, currently a sitting member of the Board of Trustees, played a large role in our history as the first black student admitted to Eckerd College. Dr. Kennedy’s story is one with which Eckerd presently holds with great pride.
Born and raised in Fernandina Beach, Florida, Dr. Kennedy likely had no clue what an impact he would have on the St. Petersburg community. When he made the decision to apply to Eckerd, then called Florida Presbyterian College, in 1963, it was out of a desire to participate in making change.
With the help of the NAACP, he participated in many movements beforehand, and when he was asked by some of its members to apply to Eckerd College, he gladly obliged.
Preparing to graduate from Gibbs Junior College later that year, Dr. Kennedy was the perfect volunteer. As a student already in college, he didn’t have to take the entrance exam that so many St. Petersburg’s high school students continued to fail whenever they applied to enter the college.
But his admission was denied, and though Dr. Kennedy wasn’t aware of it at the time, this caused quite a whirlwind. Many of the teachers at the college had come under the notion that the school would soon be integrated. The denial of the young Dr. Kennedy proved otherwise. Those teachers threatened to quit, many of them went through on their promise.
“I don’t want you guys to ever have to go through something like that,” Dr. Kennedy said, in reference to the race riots and distress of the 1960s.
In the meantime, Dr. Kennedy had to make a decision. While he couldn’t afford wait around for Eckerd to integrate after they finished construction on their new campus as the college administration had assured him they would, he had to figure out another way to pursue his education. Offered a full scholarship to Bethune-Cookman College (now University) in Daytona Beach, Florida, and not knowing who made this application on his behalf to Bethune, Dr. Kennedy saw this as a likely attempt by Eckerd administration to deter him from entrance to their college. Instead, he enlisted in the army and left with the intention of obtaining his education through his military service.
While Dr. Kennedy was serving in the army, disturbing news came to him by way of his sister. She sent him a newspaper clipping with the announcement that Eckerd had admitted its first black student, Howard E. Kennedy. Needless to say, Dr. Kennedy was shocked by this revelation as he could not at this time take advantage of this opportunity and felt it was an underhanded way by the college administration to appease the ongoing civil rights movement for integration.
After his time in the military, Dr. Kennedy continued his education in New York and soon became involved in the fragrance and flavor industry. Over the past 30+ years, he has won many accolades as a successful businessman from Outstanding Entrepreneur of the Year to The Black Achievers in Industry Award.
Dr. Kennedy didn’t hear from Eckerd again until 2003 when he received a call from a private detective hired by former Eckerd College student Susan Walker (currently Honorable Chief Magistrate Judge Walker) and current member of the Board of Trustees. The detective told him that the college had tried to get in contact with him for several years. This encounter led to a meeting with President Donald Eastman where Dr. Kennedy told him his story. Not long after their meeting, President Eastman invited Dr. Kennedy to the college, where an honorary doctorate degree was bestowed upon him and a place created on their Advisory Board and then as a member of their Board of Trustees.
As a member of the Board and as someone so intimately tied to Eckerd’s history, Dr. Kennedy has a lot of hopes for Eckerd’s future. He sees in the school what many people do: experienced and talented faculty, a beautiful location and the opportunity to obtain a great education.
He hopes to expose more black students to the college, fervently saying that, “Once you hit that campus, it speaks for itself.”
His dream extends to all minorities and encompasses more than just potential students. He longs to see more black educators at the college level, as well. He believes one of the many reasons more minority students don’t attend Eckerd College, is in part because of the high tuition, typical of a private college.
Though he can’t fund scholarships as much as he would like to, he has been working hard with the Board in order to increase enrollment and further promote change.
He has hope invested both in the youth of today and the influence of the Civil Rights Movement started so long ago.
“I never thought that in my lifetime there would ever be a black president of the United States in my lifetime, but that shows that things from the Civil Rights Movement have improved the living conditions and attitudes of people in this country, and we must keep that going,” Kennedy said.
In a continued effort to keep that spirit alive, be sure to check out the many Black History Month events provided through the college and the book On Solid Rock by Stephanie Kadel Taras Ph.D, granddaughter of Eckerd’s founding president and former student (‘89), to understand more about Dr. Kennedy’s story and experience.