Virgil Hawkins Historical Society Inc
About Our Founder
Harley Herman is a graduate of the University of Florida, College of Law and an attorney who had the privilege of representing clients who were on the other side of clients represented by Virgil Hawkins during Hawkins’ brief legal career. Graduating in 1977, Herman began practicing as a law student at the Civil Clinic that is now named for Virgil Hawkins in 1976, the same year Hawkins was admitted to the Florida Bar. Reflecting on his experiences with Virgil Hawkins, Herman has told UF law students and faculty: “I never appreciated my education at UF, until I met the man who was denied that education and was attempting to practice law without the benefits I obtained as a UF law student.”
Herman has often described his experiences and encounters with Hawkins’ zeal on behalf of clients, as entering the ring with an aging Mohammad Ali. “I never met an attorney with more commitment to fighting for his clients’ rights. The notions of justice radiated out of every pore of his body and often would knock me against the ropes. I knew if I had encountered Hawkins as a younger man, he would have had me on the canvas in minutes, but he always obtained more for his clients than they would have from other attorneys who turned them away when their pockets weren’t filled with the gold other attorneys sought.”
Sadly, as illness and advanced age made Hawkins’ Mohammad Ali moments more fleeting, Herman witnessed the tragic end of Hawkins legal career, but meeting him a few months before his fatal stroke, Herman could tell that those who sought his destruction had never beaten him. “His spine still had the strength of steel, forged from the knowledge that his fight enabled future UF graduates to soar to heights Hawkins had hoped for. At the end of his life, he cared more about their and my future, encouraging me to achieve the success he believed would be possible, rather than consume his final days regretting what he could not accomplish in his own law practice.”
Although he never intended to fight for causes, upon reading of Hawkins’ death, Herman remembered the man he last saw at a post office and the inspiration he provided by his unbending will to dream what others told him was impossible. Those memories compelled Herman to launch a campaign to restore Hawkins’ reputation, beginning with an unprecedented petition Herman filed with the Florida Supreme Court to posthumously grant the wish Hawkins told the court in 1983: “When I get to heaven, I want to be a member of the Florida Bar!” It was an effort Herman told his wife would fail, but if Hawkins could fight for the impossible, this was a fight that had to be fought.
Ten months later, despite initial opposition from the Florida Bar and local opposition that destroyed Herman’s formerly successful law practice, the Florida Supreme Court granted Herman’s petition and posthumously granted Hawkins’ wish to be a member of the Florida Bar as he walked the grounds of heaven.(In re Virgil Darnell Hawkins, 532 So.2d 669, 1988) Emboldened by this success, Herman asked the University of Florida to name the Civil Legal Clinic where students including Herman had represented the poor that Hawkins wanted to champion, after Virgil Hawkins.
When they refused, Herman secured the assistance of Florida State Senator Carrie Meek and State Representative Alzo Reddick to sponsor the bill that became law in 1989 and forced the University of Florida to name its legal clinic: The Virgil Hawkins Civil Legal Clinic”. Every pleading filed by its law students contain Hawkins name, as they work on his behalf and the University of Florida provides this means of reparations to Virgil Hawkins. Seeing what looked like a pauper’s grave, in a hidden segregated cemetery where Hawkins is buried, Herman then secured a site at the entrance to his birth community of Okahumpka, Florida and using T shirts as a catalyst, raised the funds for a six-foot high monument erected in 1991, which honors Hawkins’ fight to desegregate UF.
As Harley Herman often explains to young lawyers when he teaches at their seminars, “When Virgil Hawkins practiced law, I was a young lawyer lacking the knowledge needed to mentor him. Over a quarter of a century later, I now have the skills to mentor you, so I don’t care if it’s a weekend, a holiday, or 2 AM in the morning; if you need to talk to an experienced attorney, call me. If I’m asleep, I won’t answer the phone, but if I’m awake and you have a problem, I will not allow you to become the next attorney to suffer Virgil Hawkins’ fate. There are always solutions and on behalf of the man who inspired my career, we’ll find a solution together!”
Finding that despite the honors secured for Hawkins, over three decades after Hawkins death most people have never heard of Virgil Hawkins, Herman founded this historical society, with the goal of providing a resource for those wanting to learn of Hawkins’ life story and the Civil Rights efforts that enabled a poor, powerless son of a field hand named Virgil Hawkins to bring the most powerful men in the State of Florida to their knees and change the admissions policies of UF and Florida’s other universities.so that diversity is a right that others can obtain and prosper from. In between his work mentoring young lawyers, fighting for Hawkins’ honor at the University of Florida and sometimes practicing law in his own office, Herman has been honoring a commitment he made to the Hawkins family decades ago, to write the story of Virgil Hawkins. His writings can be found at his blog: acauseworthfightingfor.wordpress.com .