Diversity in The Florida Bar
P robably the greatest irony when The Florida Bar was formed is it was known as the “integrated” Bar.
In this case integrated meant the new organization combined government regulation of the profession with the social and other aspects of the former Florida State Bar Association.
It most assuredly did not mean racial integration, and very little gender integration. The Bar formed just as Virgil Hawkins began his lawsuit seeking to be the first African-American admitted to the University of Florida law school. Even though he was ultimately successful in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court three times refused admission. (The court last year held a formal ceremony to apologize for its role in the Hawkins case.)
The first case, in 1950, at least acknowledged that the Bar would include African-Americans, referring to a separate law school that was being set up for them at Florida A&M University. (It opened in 1951 with four professors and seven students, and ran for 15 years.)
But when Joseph Hatchett, future Florida Supreme Court justice and U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals chief judge, came to Florida in 1959, he estimated there were fewer than 25 black lawyers.
“We all knew each other, because we’d all been to the same law school at Howard University in Washington, which was about as far as a black from the Deep South got at that time,” he said.
“Back then black lawyers practiced in segregated courthouses. There were separate drinking fountains and separate bathrooms,” Hatchett recalled in a 1984 Bar Journal article. “I remember going into the DeLand courthouse for the first time and looking around for my client’s family. It was the first time that it dawned on me that black people—at that time, in that area—sat in a special mezzanine over the main courthouse.”
W hen Supreme Court Justice Leader J. Shaw, Jr., took the bar exam in 1960 at a Miami hotel, “the management came around and said that we [African-American] could all take the bar in this room [with white applicants], but we would not be allowed to eat with the rest of them at the hotel. These kinds of things, you find it hard now to conceive of something like that happening.”
Shaw taught at the FAMU law school and later was an assistant public defender and then assistant state attorney in Duval County, becoming chief of the capital crimes division. He went on to become an industrial relations judge (predecessor of judges of compensation claims) of the First District Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court.
“I can remember instances when I did criminal practice,” he said. “When officers would refer to African-Americans it was not unusual for the n-word to slip out. Unless the lawyer made an issue out of it, the judge was not inclined to do anything about it. Now if that happened, I can’t conceive of any judge in the state of Florida not stopping the trial right in its tracks and letting the parties know that would not be tolerated.”
In later years, racism took on a different form, Shaw said. He recalled conversations about attempts to find minority judicial candidates; whites would emphasize they supported the idea but “they had to find ‘qualified’ minorities. It’s laughable now that that would be an answer that anybody would think would be acceptable. There were very good lawyers, black lawyers, throughout the state and I don’t know what the extra qualification was to be a judge.”
F ormer Justice Gerald Kogan, who joined the Bar in 1955, recalled that the court system was far different then, with a variety of municipal, county, and justice of the peace courts. “Justices of the peace had their own little fiefdoms,” he said. “You could practice in your own community through that JP court.”
But while close to the community, that also meant many judges’ excesses went unchecked or were taken for granted.
“We had one judge who, if an African-American appeared before him, called him by his first name,” Kogan said. “If it was a white defendant, the judge addressed him as Mr. So and So.”
O ne black defendant objected to the practice, and the judge told him he could call him by his last name and impose the maximum sentence, or he could call him by his first name and give him probation. “Today, they wouldn’t last five minutes on the bench,” Kogan said.
“I remember one JP holding a preliminary hearing in a first degree murder case with a Mexican farmworker defendant, and he said to the guy, ‘Do you realize you’ve killed one of my constituents?’ The farmworker was terrified and had no idea of what he was talking about. The judge was making fun of him,” Kogan said.
Ft. Lauderdale attorney W. George Allen was one of those who broke the barriers. Following the rulings in the Virgil Hawkins cases, he became the first African-American to attend and graduate from the public law school at the University of Florida. He graduated in 1962.
“It’s like a root canal— something you would not want to repeat,” he said. “But it wasn’t that bad, after getting there and digging in and letting everyone know ‘I’m here to compete.’
“We were all students there and scared to death. Some of the people were nice, some were not.”
After graduation, he joined a Miami practice and that became the only integrated law firm south of Washington, D.C. “It was very nice, except the pay wasn’t worth crap,” Allen recalled. “No one got offered a great deal of money at that time. They were giving you a chance to learn how to be a lawyer.”
After six months, he became general counsel for a Ft. Lauderdale construction firm, and then a year later opened a practice with future federal judge and current U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-FL.
“When I started practicing, some of the judges were reluctant to let blacks come to the bar and some of them would outright discriminate—and make no bones about it—in terms of fees and appointments,” Allen said.
In one divorce case he handled, the judge awarded him a $200 fee, using the argument “the colored can’t pay.” Allen contended, unsuccessfully, the judge should recognized the value of his work and let him worry about collecting the fee.
Segregation was the policy of the local bars in both Dade and Broward counties and it wasn’t until Allen threatened to sue that he and Hastings were allowed to join the Broward County Bar Association in 1965.
Florida was a “good ol’ boy” state, he said, but that cut both ways. “I’ve enjoyed my years as a member of the Bar and I’ve been helped by a lot of good old boys and good old girls,” Allen said.
W hile things are much better now, Allen still sees problems, including getting African-American lawyers hired by large firms, and once there, getting significant cases and chances to make partner. “Some of the biggest law firms in Broward County don’t have any black partners,” he noted. “Many of the firms are still discriminating in terms of making partner and giving them equal work. They will hire them, but not give them access to the best clients.”
E vett Simmons, a former Bar Board of Governors member and president-elect of the National Bar Association, said the struggles still are not over.
After a sharp spike in African-American enrollment in Florida’s law schools, the numbers have begun to decline in recent years, she said. And the NBA is concerned that efforts to raise the passing grade on the bar exam may have a disproportionate effect on minorities.
“In six months, we got the Ward Connerly [anti-affirmative action] initiative, we got the Governor’s One Florida executive order, we got the Florida Board of Bar Examiners raising their passage rate,” said Simmons, who attended segregated schools as a child. “I see us getting ready to fight for the same ground that it took us 30 years to get to in the first place.
“When I see our numbers are decreasing [in law schools] instead of increasing, that frightens me. And when I see in a climate where that is happening we’re putting up more roadblocks, then I don’t see a good future for us, by design. That’s why we have to do something about it.”