HBCU Profiles: From Music To Flight Florida Memorial University Shines

Jan 25, 2018

Barrington Irving studied aviation at FMU. He is the youngest person to fly around the world solo.
Credit Barrington Irving's Instagram

In the final part of our series on historically black colleges and universities, we take a look at the state’s Southern-most HBCU, Florida Memorial University

One of Florida Memorial’s first claims to fame is the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem.

The Florida Memorial University Ambassador Choir performed the song at the Black History Month Celebration last year at Bethel Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Director Mel White is the director.

“I’m so proud and I have to say it everywhere. You know when you have good news you have to talk about it. That song was written on the campus of Florida Memorial University. And first performed in 1900 by two, at that point, music faculty members—James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson and now that little hymn is song all over the world,” White said.

FMU Vice President of Government Affairs Marcus Burgess says Jacksonville is where the school got its start back in 1879.

“And then we relocated to St. Augustine but in the mid to late 60s through racial tension and the Klan coming onto campus and posing a threat to students the university moved to Miami Gardens in 1968," Burgess said.

This year is the school’s 50th anniversary in its new home. While it remains a leading institution in the arts—producing a large number of black teachers, for example—it has also become well known for its focus on subjects in the STEM field—or science, technology, engineering and math.

“Aviation is probably our flagship program. A lot of notoriety comes at Captain Arnold Tolbert who leads that program. He’s really transformed it and we’re so excited by that. You know we have to famous graduates,” Burgess said.

One of those graduates is Barrington Irving. In 2007 Irving, who was a student at the time at the FMU school of Aviation, became the first African American pilot and the youngest person to fly a plane around the world—solo. Irving talked with PBS about what convinced him to become a pilot.

“I was born in Kingston Jamaica. Moved to Miami at the age of 6. Grew up in very humble beginnings. I remember not being able to eat sometimes. I also remember the crime. At the age of 15 I snuck out to visit a friend who got locked up in juvy. I saw what jail really looks like—people screaming, people scratching the walls with their fingernails. When I really saw what that looked like, I knew I didn’t want that for my life,” Irving said.

Irving said he saw two options for creating a new path for himself—relying on scholarships in football to help him get a college degree, or flying. He chose the latter and has dedicated his life now to opening the eyes of other young people to the choices that can come with a focus on math and science. One of the young people Irving inspired was Trayvon Martin.

“One of the things that Trayvon wanted to do was actually to become a pilot and last year would have been the year that—and he was coming to Florida Memorial—that he would have graduated with his aeronautical degree,” Burgess said.

FMU recognized Martin last year with a posthumous degree.

Martin was killed in 2012 by a gunman who claimed to be a neighborhood watch volunteer. The case sparked discussions around the country about gun legislation and race relations. And those are discussions Burgess says are continuing on FMU’s campus today. Martin’s mother attended FMU and founded the Trayvon Martin foundation there. Now Burgess says the school is working to create the Trayvon Martin Center for Social Justice.

“So we can keep the conversation going. We want to be a place where we can write white papers, we can do research, we can talk about the injustice and then have a place for free thought and thinking and symposiums to continue the conversations about how we can better get along and understand the different relations,” Burgess said.