Kitty Oliver ’69 arrived at the UF campus in 1962 as an eager freshman — and one of only five freshmen out of a group of seven black students. They were the first black undergraduates, and for some, including Kitty, it was their first experience of integration.
Kitty lived in Broward Hall, where she had to follow a curfew for two years. Her roommate was one of only a few other black female students at UF. "The racial construct is woven into our society,” she says. “People say, ‘Race doesn’t exist,’ but you can’t ignore it — it’s there.”
Fifty-five years later, on February 12, 2017, Kitty, who is now a speaker, journalist, and performing artist, shared her story at UF’s Constans Theatre. A storyteller by training, she offered her motto of “stories with a purpose,” and as evidence traced her own journey through the civil rights era into the contemporary struggles of black Americans.
Kitty began the evening with a song that captivated the room. “I’m not a historian. I come from the creative arts,” she cautioned. Historically, however, her arrival at UF, studies in English, and eventual job at The Miami Herald were all of significance. She was of the first black staff writers and reporters in the area, she says. As a journalist for 19 years, she heard thousands of stories, many of which didn’t make it into print. Perhaps because of this, she eventually began an oral history project documenting people’s experiences of “racinity” — race, ethnicity, and class as an intersectional basis for social change and storytelling.
She told the audience that after completing a writing residency at Florida Atlantic University, she began her PhD studies. Her dissertation focused on race and ethnic communication, and to wit, she began producing television shows with WBEC-TV. Among these projects was a growing archive of oral histories about young people’s experiences with racinity, and she says young people were eager to participate. “Young people have the best platform right now,” she says, referring to video.
She screened several of the 125 stories from the archive in the Constans Theatre. Among the topics were the slurs for those who “cross cultures” or are marked as lesser “members” of their ethnicity. One storyteller described the “brown-paper-bag test” for to measure one’s skin tone and therefore “Black-ness”; another recounted a story they’d heard from a white person, wondering where they got the idea that drinking from a water fountain after a black person would somehow change them even though they had never been overtly told that.
“[W.E.B] DuBois says that race is a lived experience of discrimination,” says Kitty. “It’s that perception of an experience that is discriminatory that creates the concept of racial differences.” In sharing these stories, she hopes to continue to unpack racinity and dismantle bigotry.