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University Study Center, Florence

The first of the Army University Centres to open was at Florence – and in many ways, it served as a prototype for the others.

Its home was impressive. In 1938, Mussolini had built the showpiece Fascist School of Aeronautics, and the Americans simply moved in to the pristine campus in June 1945. Its buildings were immediately renamed after the most prestigious American colleges, becoming Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Citadel, Cornell, Vanderbilt and Duke Halls. German PoWs were engaged to perform housekeeping tasks; records disclose that only two absconded.

Some 7,500 soldier-students were to pass through the university during its four one-month sessions. An acute shortage of materials was offset by help from the University of Florence, and the ability to use its books, laboratories and other facilities. Most classes were at freshman or sophomore level, though there was an advanced stream (“Class 1000”) for graduate soldiers.

Popular courses included agriculture and forestry as well as liberal arts; and journalism students were able to produce a weekly newspaper, the US Collegian, despite the Italian typesetters not knowing a word of English.

It was at Florence that instructors first noticed that far from being unfit for academic study, soldiers were among the most responsive and enthusiastic students they had ever encountered; and the men’s response to the university was overwhelmingly positive.

Most notably, the Florence Army University was a pioneer in racial integration – and represented a totally unprecedented experiment in an army that was still strictly segregated. While all of the University Centers were integrated in theory, black servicemen made up only a tiny fraction of the others – but a far higher proportion of black units fought in the Mediterranean Theatre. Its units also included the 442nd Infantry: a regiment made up entirely of “Nisei”, or Japanese-Americans.

Thanks to the strict quota system for admissions (contrasting with the numerus clausus system governing admissions to many US universities) Florence’s student body was 20pc black, 8pc Nisei and 72pc white. There were also two black instructors – yet 31 per cent of the civilian academic staff came from states where educational segregation was still practised at university level.

The classroom, dormitory, mess hall and sports field were all integrated. And of the four successive presidents of the student council elected by the soldiers, one was black, one Nisei and two white.

Records suggest there was not one serious disciplinary incident related to race; the worst such episode was down to an external agency. The American Red Cross (which looked after many of the social events for GIs) refused to sponsor an interracial dance, prompting the students to attempt to organise the event themselves.

Moreover, when Congressman John E Rankin made a speech calling for “white government” in the Capitol, the student body protested in a letter to Stars and Stripes, the US Army magazine.

This uniquely progressive stance on race is just one of the reasons why the University Study Center at Florence is such an intriguing object of study – and one whose oral history deserves to be preserved.

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