Every two years, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest and largest Black intercollegiate fraternity, brings thousands of attendees — and millions of dollars — to the cities where it holds its biennial convention.
In 2025, Orlando was slated to benefit from that influx — an economic impact Alpha Phi Alpha projected to be between $4.6 million and $10 million. Instead, the organization — which once counted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall among its members — has decided to relocate its convention, citing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “harmful, racist, and insensitive policies against the Black community.”
“Our intent is to ensure that, where we spend our dollars, we are going to be respected,” Alpha Phi Alpha General President Willis L. Lonzer III told The Washington Post. “And people that look like us, who are Black people, Brown people, people of different cultures and ethnicities, need to be respected.”
The decision comes six months after Florida rejected the College Board’s new Advanced Placement course in African American studies — a part of DeSantis’s long-running battle against what he calls “woke ideology” infiltrating schools. The governor has urged restrictions on how Black history is taught since 2021. Last year, DeSantis signed a law banning the teaching of critical race theory — an academic framework focused on the idea that racial inequality is systemically interwoven in American society, legal systems and institutions — in public schools.
Yet Lonzer said “the final straw that broke the proverbial back” came last week, when the state’s board of education approved a new set of standards for public schools’ Black history curriculum — one that says students should learn that enslaved people “developed skills” that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“We need to be clear that slavery was immoral, and anyone who suggests otherwise is either incredibly ignorant or grossly divisive or both,” Lonzer said. “Our efforts are to really make sure that it’s clear that we will not tolerate that level of disrespect. This is considered an economic protest by removing our convention out of the Orlando market and, really, out of Florida.”
Though DeSantis has said he “wasn’t involved” in crafting the new standards, he defended the policy, telling reporters “they’re probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”
DeSantis tells me FL’s new Black history standards are ‘rooted in whatever is factual,’ when I asked him his thoughts on middle school instruction on ‘how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit’ – pic.twitter.com/Ae5YVYGIOP
— Kit Maher (@KitMaherCNN) July 22, 2023
Spokespersons for DeSantis and Florida’s Department of Education did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In a previous statement, Cassandra Palelis, press secretary for the state’s education department, said changes made under DeSantis’s administration have made it so “the past and present contributions of African Americans are celebrated, and their rich history is fully and accurately taught.”
Over the past months, though, civil rights groups have disagreed with that notion. Earlier this year, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Equality Florida and the NAACP all issued travel advisories to the Sunshine State, warning that the recent slew of policies have turned Florida into a hostile state for people of color, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Florida’s new curriculum has sparked backlash from educators, organizations and elected officials ranging from Vice President Harris to members of the GOP, including Rep. Byron Donalds (Fla.) and former congressman Will Hurd of Texas.
Lonzer said it would take a reversal of Florida’s policies for Alpha Phi Alpha to backpedal its decision. A new location will be decided after this year’s convention in Dallas wraps up on Sunday, he said.
The organization chooses where to host its conventions based on a slew of factors, Lonzer said. The cities must have an environment that is favorable for business and families. They must also be in places where Alpha Phi Alpha will be able to “leave a positive footprint” through the convention’s mentorship opportunities, lectures and community-based activities, including blood drives and health-care drives.
In Orlando, DeSantis’s laws have hindered that, he added.
“Until those things happen, we’re going to stand strong with our protest because we have to make it plain to individuals who do not understand that we will not be intimidated by law changes and an infrastructure that is not favorable for us,” he said. “We’ve survived worse than that.”
Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.