“I mean, don't tell the legislature, but I would have done it for nothing.”
- Dr. Raymond Arsenault, The John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida- St. Petersburg, on his 41-year tenure.
TAMPA, Fla. - COVID-19 is hastening the departure of an award-winning author and professor in the Tampa Bay area.
Dr. Ray Arsenault is saying goodbye after 41 years at USF - St. Pete.
What You Need To Know
- In her latest Life in the Time, Virginia meets Dr. Ray Arsenault
- He is retiring after a long teaching career
- He said online classes caused by COVID aren't the same as in-person
- More Life in the Time stories by Virginia Johnson
At 72, he wasn’t planning to retire, but the online classes have not been the same for a person dialed into the intimacy of the classroom experience with his students.
“So many of them have gone on to wonderful careers. And I always felt like they would walk through a wall for me,” said Arsenault. “They would just work so hard. And, you know, they're so eager to absorb everything they can. So I've really enjoyed my time here.”
During his time at the University, Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History, wrote the book “Freedom Riders” about activists who challenged unconstitutional segregation laws in the early 60s.
They took interstate busses into the deep south-where they used “Whites-Only” bathroom and sat at “Whites-Only” lunch counters.
And they nearly died because of it. They were willing to die for equality for others.
PBS used his book for a sweeping documentary series.
He’s lectured on Civil Rights history throughout the world.
“When I started the Freedom Rider book, I knew about the original 13 Freedom Riders. John Lewis was among them,” Arsenault explained. “I had no idea there were more than 60 Freedom Rides and that there were 436 different people who got on those busses.”
They’d made out their wills. They were committed to the call for justice.
“The thing that the former Freedom Fighters always stressed is that there's a difference between a protest and a movement--that a real movement takes planning, takes discipline,” Arsenault recounted, “You have to think things through.”
Arsenault says there are many parallels between the Freedom Riders and the Black Lives Matter movements-- like discipline.
“Even though there are other provocateurs and people who don't believe in nonviolence, who have who have intervened, unfortunately, and have been used as fodder by the right wing and by people who want to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement,” Arsenault said.
Arsenault’s latest book on African American tennis star and social activist Arthur Ashe came out in 2019—the same year Colin Kaepernick and the NFL reached a confidential agreement over allegations that in 2017 team owners colluded and denied him a chance to play because of his racial justice protests.
“Ashe was always urging his fellow athletes to speak out, to take a stand, not to be treated like, you know, sort of circus performers. ‘Just shut up and dribble’ was the thing that was said back in the 60s.”
In that vein, Arsenault says he was proud that Lebron James and other African American athletes are speaking out on social justice issues.
Arsenault has worked with St. Petersburg leaders and has been an activist for social justice.
“St. Petersburg has had a checkered past. Like any southern city, it had full blown Jim Crow and racism,” said Arsenault. “We've broken down some of the residential segregation, and I think in the whole city has a different mood than it had when I got here in 1980.”
Arsenault knows there is still work to do- he says vestiges of the city’s white supremacist past remain.
But he points to people of color in leadership roles in St. Pete as signs of progress and hope- Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and Police Chief Anthony Holloway.
All this time—since 1980 in fact –Ray Arsenault has been at the little campus on the water in downtown St. Petersburg. He’d moved from a good university position at a strong department in the University of Minnesota.
“We had our first child there, and a year after we got there and there were two of the coldest winters in Minnesota history,” explained Arsenault.
The Cape Cop native says he promised his 8th generation Floridian wife a warmer life.
The couple would grow their family to four in St. Pete- two girls. And now they’ve got themselves a new generation on their hands.
Another wave of young people to mentor and educate.
So he’s not really left his teaching position so much as he is transferring to a different learning level – part time. His historical work is calling too.
Arsenault spoke about the next book he is planning –on Civil Rights Leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis, who passed away in August.
And one of the original Freedom Riders.
Here’s to Good Trouble ahead.