EUGENE PETTIS is sworn in as president of The Florida Bar June 28 in Boca Raton, as his wife, Sheila, and daughters Shenele, left, and Shardé, right, look on. “We are going to reach further, lift higher, and embrace those we come into contact with, so the words of diversity and inclusion will have substantive meaning,” Pettis said.
Pettis sworn in as president
The first African-American Bar president promises ‘One Bar with One Mission’
By Jan Pudlow
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”
Eugene Pettis, the first African-American president of The Florida Bar, wiped away tears as Gayle Keaton, a fellow member of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Ft. Lauderdale, sang the powerful lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called “The Black National Anthem.”
Many in the standing-room only crowd gathered to witness this historic occasion sang along and dabbed away tears, too, as 52-year-old Pettis, a co-founding partner at Haliczer, Pettis & Schwamm in Ft. Lauderdale, was sworn in as the 65th president at the Bar’s Annual Convention in Boca Raton on June 28. (Video of the president's message.)
When the song ended, jubilant well-wishers, including Pettis’s six siblings, wife, daughters, extended family, church members, friends, and colleagues erupted in cheers and thunderous applause.
“Gayle, what a beautiful voice and a most meaningful song,” Pettis said, as he stood at the podium as the freshly sworn-in leader of Florida’s 96,512 lawyers.
“Every time I hear it, it brings chills from the despair and struggle of our ancestors, yet warms my heart with the conviction and hope for a brighter day. Thank you for setting the tone for this occasion.”
Pettis pointed out that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by James Wheldon Johnson, the first African-American applicant to pass the Florida bar exam in 1897. The song was first performed in Johnson’s hometown of Jacksonville in 1900, by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated school where Johnson served as principal.
“If he were alive today, I truly believe he would recognize this as a day ‘full of hope that the present has brought us,’” Pettis said.
Part of Pettis’ personal history was sitting next to him at the head table: W. George Allen, the first African-American graduate of the University of Florida and 50-year member of the Bar, who gave Pettis his first legal job as a law clerk in 1983.
Allen remembered that he wrote letters recommending Pettis as an undergrad and law student at the University of Florida.
“And I hired Gene as an intern before he entered the University of Florida, at the insistence of my fellow church member, Mrs. Sara Pettis [Gene’s mother], who was concerned that Gene may have wanted to be a businessman,” Allen said.
“In 1950, The Florida Bar became a unified and integrated bar. It took 43 years to elect the first female president of The Florida Bar, Pat Seitz. And now, 63 years later, we truly have become an integrated bar association,” Allen said in introducing Pettis.
When Pettis’ older brother, Dr. Cyrus “Bubba” Pettis, gave the invocation, he prayed: “God, I pray that you keep your hands upon this Florida Bar. God, it’s historic. And it’s been a long time, but, God, we know your timing is perfect. God, we thank you again for this day.”
“Yes!” “Yes!” “Amen!” rang out from the crowd, giving the occasion the joyous zeal of an uplifting church sermon.
Pettis took a moment to recognize Henry Latimer, a respected Broward County lawyer, former judge, and Bar Board of Governors member tragically killed in a one-car accident on January 24, 2005.
“We all know that Henry would have been the first African-American president of this great Bar, but for his untimely death in 2005. But let there be no doubt that his spirit lives today,” Pettis said.
At the convention, the theme “Inclusion — The Path to Unity” could be seen on huge posters, lapel pins, T-shirts, and name tags.
“When we discuss diversity and inclusion, it is often a concept that some find difficult to envision, and even harder to fulfill,” Pettis said. “But an offer of inclusion without more is just an empty gesture. We need inclusion backed with opportunity.
“Well, today, God has given us a real-life illustration of the transformative potential of giving people a chance in life.
“When he guided a teenage boy who didn’t know where Gainesville was to enter the University of Florida through a pipeline program, and with that opportunity, he graduated with honors, a member of the state’s highest collegiate leadership honorary, Florida Blue Key; elected student body treasurer, and inducted into the University of Florida’s Hall of Fame — that’s the power of inclusion backed with opportunity.
“When a law school directed that student to attend CLEO [Council on Legal Education Opportunity] over the summer of 1982, as a prerequisite to admission to show that he was ready for law school, and once again upon admission, he matriculated successfully through the University of Florida’s College of Law, only to return and serve on its board of trustees and establish endowments that are helping others — that’s the power of inclusion backed with opportunity.
“When the law firm of Conrad, Scherer and James decided to hire its first African-American attorney in 1985, it opened the door for a career highlighted as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and so many others.
“I raise this not to boast, but, rather, to say to you: You never know who you are lifting when you elevate another person to higher ground. That’s the power of inclusion. And I am the face of opportunity.
“If we are lucky in life, there will be a moment when our life will transcend our self-interests, and we will become an instrument of good, fulfilling a cause seemingly beyond our reach.
“I thank God that I’m living such a moment today, for this accomplishment is far beyond my abilities. There is no doubt this is a watershed moment in our Bar’s history. But change builds on history.
“. . .While I am recognized as the first African-American president of The Florida Bar, I am certainly not the sole cause of this accomplishment.
“There were many who came before me and took the blows of indignity so I could stand tall with pride, those whose backs and shoulders carried the burdens of segregation, so my generation could enjoy a life of endless possibilities and reachable dreams.”
Pettis listed Florida’s heroes with “hearts of boundless resilience”:
* Joseph E. Lee, the first African-American to be admitted to practice with a law degree in 1873;
* Thomas J. Reddick, Jr., the first African-American circuit judge in 1972;
* Bernice Gaines Dorn, the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in 1958;
* Joseph Hatchett, the first African-American justice of the Florida Supreme Court in 1975;
* Virgil Hawkins, who “desired to fulfill a dream of attending the University of Florida’s law school, only to be denied by a statewide system of bigotry, time and time again, simply because of his race. But despite the blatant bigotry, his spirit and resolve held firm and is part of the foundation upon which we all stand.”
“All I have done is to cross this line of achievement in a race that was started over a century ago,” Pettis said. “I am the son and beneficiary of a proud legacy. A legacy that is not just about race, but a legacy that is empowered by its commitment to standing on the right side of justice, a legacy that endured the times when ‘hope unborn had died,’ and a legacy that will continue to march on ‘’til victory is won.’”
This year, Pettis promises, “We are going to reach further, lift higher, and embrace those we come into contact with, so the words of diversity and inclusion will have substantive meaning. That spirit is essential for us to truly stand as one Bar with one mission: equality and justice for all.”