by Tim Gilmore, 1/27/2023
Fred “No Fun Classes” Kent referred to Psychology Professor Mildred Barnert as a “lady teacher,” saying, “I don’t really remember what her exact gripe was,” but recalling “she was right good-looking, particularly in her nightgown.”
Fred Kent never saw Professor Barnert in a nightgown.
Kent, after whom Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Kent Campus is named, was the first chair of the college’s district board of trustees. A month before Barnert’s protest for being fired without explanation, Kent told reporters, “If a person wants to take a cultural course to enrich himself, this is fine,” but that the college shouldn’t have to pay for classes in the arts, which he characterized as “dancing and folk music.” The Florida Times-Union headlined the story: “Kent: Cut JC [Junior College] ‘Fun’ Courses.”
Mildred “Milli” Barnert taught at then-Florida Junior College for one year, 1967 – ’68, and when she was terminated without being given a reason, she protested by staging a sleep-in in her office at Southside Campus, the college’s original campus, a 1917 former elementary school building. Compared to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-ins a year later, when photographers snapped now-iconic photos of the couple in bed in Amsterdam and Montreal, accompanied by flowers, a guitar and signs saying, “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace,” Milli Barnert’s protest was tame. At least it began that way.
Professor Barnert left a position at Jacksonville University to join Florida Junior College at its outset and won a teaching award. The 1968 FJC Stars Award commended Barnert “for outstanding service to the Florida Junior College at Jacksonville and to the community it serves.” Her dean’s evaluation rated her “outstanding” in six categories and “above average” in the other two. In his personal comments, he wrote, “The best I have observed at FJC!”
“I was always student-oriented and got along well with my students,” Barnert told Professor Robert Gentry in a 1991 oral history. “Some students asked to bring visitors to my class. Others who weren’t in my class would sometimes stand outside in the hall and listen.”
Then she was fired and nobody would tell her why. “I asked the administration to give me a written reason why my teaching contract was not being renewed,” she told Gentry. “They wouldn’t.” So she met with J. Bruce Wilson, the college’s first president, in his Southside Campus office, to ask him for an explanation. “He was very sweet and nice,” she said, “but I still didn’t learn why I was being fired.”
On May 9, 1968, the Times-Union reported the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredits (or disaccredits) educational institutions from preschool to college, “criticized the administration and said a lack of internal organization and communication has caused low morale at FJC and a mutual distrust between faculty, students and administration.”
Those first few years, the college frequently failed to pay professors on time, administrators followed faculty members around campus to watch them, standing uninvited in their classrooms and offices, and three professors who expressed a desire to work on their doctorates were forced to resign. President Wilson told History Professor Ben Edmonson, a self-professed hippie, he’d have to cut his hair. Edmonson refused, noted the president’s bald head and told Wilson he ought to grow a beard to make up for the lack of hair above. At the college’s first graduation ceremony, student protestors marched up and down the aisles with placards reading, “Down with the President!”
Wilson told Gentry in ’91, “My reaction to those criticisms is to plead guilty” and blamed “incompetencies that I brought to the job.” Yet Wilson supported the college’s “Experimental College” program, which used a model similar to that of New College of Florida, founded in 1960, at which students focused on intersectionality, “divergent” instead of “convergent” thinking, and received personal commentary from their professors in place of grades. Wilson and Fred “No Fun” Kent locked horns constantly.
Wilson claimed he signed “a resignation agreement with Mr. Kent” to “create a situation” in which Kent would either leave Wilson’s preferred administrators alone or quit. If Kent did fire Wilson with such a promise, he only kept that promise a year. Wilson told Gentry that Kent “destroyed individuals who worked successfully against all odds in getting the college created and accredited.”
Luckily for Professor Barnert, she was not one of the people the president of the college board “destroyed.” She was in her early 40s and had plenty of possibilities ahead of her. She told Gentry 23 years later that her husband had business interests in Israel and she’d been looking forward to moving there. Nevertheless, she said, “I protested out of principle.”
The July 27th Jacksonville Journal photo caption said, “Protesting Teacher Makes Herself Comfortable in Junior College Office.” Barnert wore a modest pajama jumpsuit – not the nightgown in which Fred Kent claimed to have ogled her – with sleeves that reached her wrists and pants that extended to her ankles. She borrowed a cot from the teacher’s lounge. The next day, a couple of students brought her crackers and drinks. She described the event as “completely uneventful” except “for a big crawly roach I had to kill in the middle of the night.”
Despite the publicity, Barnert still received no explanation for her termination. Administration just wasn’t listening. So she escalated her protest. On August 3rd, The Jacksonville Journal featured a photo by Pulitzer-winning photographer Rocco Morabito, showing Barnert painting the word “Listen!” on a wall in the Southside Campus building. She painted variations of “Listen!” 10 times across doors and windows and went home.
In response, Kent promised her an explanation for having fired her. Though the letter he wrote her was vague, it gave her some idea of just how much she’d irritated Administration. Despite her dean’s evaluation calling her “the best I have observed at FJC,” Barnert had run afoul of administrators by teaching class outside and occasionally letting classes go a few minutes early because there was no air-conditioning in the sprawling brick building and temperatures had soared to the upper 90s. Despite a high-school-like rule that professors needed to file their assignments and exams with “the front office,” Barnert often gave “unorthodox” assignments and didn’t file them. She complained about floor waxing that caused several students, one of whom was pregnant, to slip and fall, and she vocalized support for Duval County high school teachers who were striking for better pay and increased education funding.
Whether Professor Milli Barnert would have protested publicly if she knew these offenses might have led to her termination is a question that, being hypothetical, can’t be answered. Because faculty at the new college had no tenure, and were decades away from unionizing, Administration could fire them for any cause and with no explanation. Reflecting on the situation 23 years later, Barnert believed her “protest had a good impact on FJC in that it put a strong challenge to the administration to change their rehiring policies in fairness to faculty rights.”
In 1991, Former President Wilson still wouldn’t say, 23 years after firing Professor Barnert, why she was fired. He recalled her as “outstanding” and “very attractive.” In fact, Wilson often rated women professors by their looks. Former English Professor Marilyn Gooding, later DeSimone, says Wilson hired her in 1967 without seeing a résumé, a curriculum vitae or an application because he liked the sight of her legs. Wilson would only say Barnert was fired “in the best interests of the college,” and that her protesting being fired without explanation “certainly verified” his “recommendation.”
Former Board Chairman Fred Kent said, 23 years later, that the incident of the “lady teacher who went on strike and camped out in one of the classrooms of that Southside Campus” was a “humorous episode.” Kent said he liked the sight of her in her “nightgown” and that she “loved having her picture made.” He said, “It seemed she wanted some privilege or other, but I don’t really remember what her exact gripe was” and concluded, “Everybody in town thought it was a good laugh.”
He was wrong on several counts. Mildred Barnert was one of the college’s founding faculty members, not just “a lady teacher.” She didn’t go “on strike,” because as long as she was employed, she never stopped teaching or refused to work. She never “camped out” in a classroom; she slept one night in her office. Nor did Kent see Professor Barnert in a nightgown. Rather than asking for “some privilege or other,” she wanted faculty rights. In fact, she helped attain them, not for herself, but for future faculty. Sexist administrators like Kent might have had “a good laugh” at her expense, but other people in town in 1968 were also fighting for justice and equal rights, including basic Civil Rights for black citizens and women’s rights.
The former South Jacksonville Grammar School, a 1917 brick building with wide bands of windows, designed by the Prairie style architects Victor Earl Mark and Leeroy Sheftall, served as FJC’s Southside Campus from the fall of 1966 to ’70. Developers converted it into condos in 2004. Besides the praise the school heaped on Barnert before firing her, she always said she loved teaching and loved her students. She died in Atlanta in 1997, 73 years old. In the low-quality images that were all I could find in FSCJ’s archives, newspaper archives and the Jacksonville Public Library’s Florida Collection, she’s still young, still smiling, still righteous.