Diversity and Inclusion Committee readies for its ‘Path to Unity’ campaign
Offers to host the “Path to Unity” campaign — a traveling Florida legal history project that will tell the story of the Bar’s journey from its segregated past to the rich, multi-cultural organization that it is today — poured into the Zoom server as soon as the Diversity and Inclusion Committee convened its October 7 meeting.
“There are a lot of responses in the chat room,” committee member Harriett Williams reported. “This is just overwhelming.”
More venues need to be secured before the February 25 Orlando premiere of the exhibit, and fundraising will be challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting hard economic times, organizers acknowledged.
But early interest in hosting the project is no surprise, said Board of Governors member Scott Westheimer of Sarasota.
“The quality of this program speaks for itself,” Westheimer said.
Westheimer chaired the Program Evaluation Committee’s subcommittee that shepherded the project through the board. The approval process, according to Westheimer, generated a great deal of enthusiasm.
“Just so you know, it was approved at every level,” he said. “When this comes to your town, your local Board of Governors member will be there.”
The first element of the project, a portrait of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), the first Black lawyer to be admitted to The Florida Bar by examination, has already been painted, said committee Chair Charlie Ann Syprett.
“Our mission, our objective, our goal is to inspire young students to pursue a career in the law,” she said. “We’re going to see more and more underrepresented students attending college.”
The project will include “five faces of change,” portraits of five pioneering Florida lawyers “who inspired by example, through personal recognition or prowess, and who made a significant, lasting contribution to changing the historic misperceptions, and thereby making an easier path to those who came afterwards,” Syprett said.
The portraits are being painted by student artists and will be displayed at courthouses throughout Florida over a two-year period.
Volunteer lawyers will conduct programs for visiting middle and high school classes, discussing the history of the five lawyers, and integrating their stories with the history of the U.S. Constitution, amendments to it, federal laws, U.S. Supreme Court rulings and how they affected racial and gender equality as well as civil, disability, and sexual orientation rights.
Presentations will also be made by local voluntary bar associations and civic groups.
The Orlando unveiling will be jointly sponsored with the Orange County Bar Association and the National Black Lawyers Association, before the exhibit travels to Jacksonville.
“Jacksonville is extraordinarily excited,” said committee member Larry Smith. “They wanted to hang it in a permanent display in the Jacksonville courthouse.”
Smith said organizers will ask that The Florida Bar grant the exhibit “showcase” status for the next Annual Convention, which will hopefully be held in person.
“We think this should have a nighttime, formal launch, with great dignity,” he said. “We’re all ready to be back around people again.”
The committee has raised about $15,000 in donations to cover the cost of the project, Smith said, but more fundraising lies ahead as organizers work to recruit volunteer presenters and venues.
“We’ve got a lot of obstacles behind us, but we have a lot of challenges ahead,” he said.
The five Floridians being honored by the program as legal legends for breaking barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability are:
• James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938, became the first Black admitted to The Florida Bar through an examination. Born in Jacksonville, he moved to Atlanta to attend high school and college (Jacksonville at the time had only education through the eighth grade for Blacks) and then returned to Jacksonville as principal of Stanton Elementary School.
Johnson expanded Stanton into a 12-year school and at the same time studied law, eventually winning admission to the Bar after examination by three lawyers and a judge (Johnson later recalled one of the lawyers left and refused to participate). Johnson was a novelist, historian, civil rights leader (who worked for years with the NAACP), and editor.
In 1900, he wrote the poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which his brother, John, later set to music and became known as the Black national anthem. He served as ambassador to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Azores and in the 1920s was a leader in the Harlem Renaissance literary and artistic movement.
• Anna Brenner Meyers, 1896-1983, was first a nurse and then a teacher in New York City, organizing the Medical Social Service of Israel Zion, working at the New York City Crime Prevention Bureau, and in the Emergency Relief Administration. After graduating from the Brooklyn Law School of St. Lawrence University, Meyers began practicing law in Miami and Miami Beach in 1936.
Besides her law career, Meyers was chair of the Miami Beach Public Library Board of Trustees, chair of the Greater Miami Women’s Division of Bonds for Israel, an organizer for Temple Beth Sholem, and was a long-time member of the Dade County School Board. She ran unsuccessfully for circuit judge in 1954 but continued her practice and service, including as treasurer and vice president of the Federation of Women Lawyers and on the Dade County Welfare Planning Council.
In 1951, Meyers was a founding member and first president of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers (now the Florida Association for Women Lawyers). A year later, the group adopted its constitution and bylaws, which provided, “Its object shall be to advance the science of jurisprudence, to promote reform in the law, to facilitate the administration of justice, to uphold the highest standard of integrity, learning, honor and courtesy in the legal profession, and to cultivate a spirit of cordiality and fellowship among the members of the Bar and between them and the Bench.”
• Judge Mario Goderich began practicing law in Cuba in 1957 but came to Miami in 1961. Working non-legal jobs, Goderich enrolled in the University of Miami School of Law, graduating in two and a half years. It took another three years, though, before he could become a citizen and then join The Florida Bar. He was admitted in 1969.
Goderich became the first president of the Cuban American Bar Association in 1974 and was appointed as a judge of industrial claims the following year. In 1978, he was appointed as an 11th Circuit judge and was elected and reelected in 1980 and 1986. In 1990, Goderich was appointed to the Third District Court of Appeal where he served until retiring in 2005. In all of his judicial posts, he was the first Hispanic/Cuban American to hold the post.
His service has been recognized with many awards and honors, including the Lawyer of the Americans Award by the University of Miami InterAmerican Law Review, the Order of Democracy from the Republic of Colombia, the first Francisco Garcia-Amador Award from the UM Law School Center for Hispanic and Caribbean Legal Studies, and the Jurist of the Year Award from St. Thomas University School of Law. Florida International University has a CABA merit scholarship in Goderich’s name.
• Larry D. Smith since joining the Bar in 1984 has made numerous civic and community contributions. He has advocated consistently for the LGBTQ community including helping persuade Orlando to amend its human rights ordinance to prohibit workplace, housing, and public discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Similar successful efforts followed with the Orange County Board of Education, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and the Orange County Commission.
Smith organized the Central Florida Gay and Lesbian Law Association, the first LGBTQ bar association outside of South Florida and is a past president. In 2013, he received the Diversity Leadership Award from the ABA Section of Litigation and in 2016 then Bar President Ramón Abadin recognized Smith with the Bar’s G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award. The latter came just days after the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando and Smith’s poignant acceptance remarks produced a standing ovation at the Annual Convention General Assembly. He is also a past recipient of the Young Lawyers Division Diversity Award, the Litigation Counsel of America and Diversity Law Institute Diversity Award, and the Defense Research Sheryl J. Wilbert Pioneer Diversity Award. Smith has also written and spoken extensively about diversity issues.
• James Kracht, who joined The Florida Bar in 1976 after graduating from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, was one who challenged “rules about disability back in the early days, the one who made change and broke barriers,” according to Miami attorney and disability advocate Matthew Dietz, who counts Kracht as a mentor.
Kracht has not let being blind stop him from challenging barriers to lawyers and other people with disabilities. Kracht served more than 25 years on the Florida Council for the Blind, including as president and has received the council’s President’s Award and the W.A. Ouzts Award.
In 2005, he was among those urging then Secretary of State Katherine Harris to require that any new voting systems be accessible for those with vision, hearing, and mobility disabilities.
He has mentored numerous blind and other lawyers and in 2006 helped organize the Bar’s first CLE seminar about lawyers with disabilities.