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‘Finally, justice has arrived’: 113 years later, Governor reinstates Florida’s first black judge

Associate Editor Regular News

‘Finally, justice has arrived’

113 years later, Governor reinstates Florida’s first black judge

Associate Editor

Key West lawyer Calvin Allen believes it is never too late to right a wrong.

He learned a little-known fact from his favorite law professor at Howard University: James Dean was the first black judge elected in the South after Reconstruction in 1888, and was wrongly yanked from the Monroe County bench on a trumped-up charge he’d married an interracial couple. Recent research delivered the poignant detail that Dean died in Jacksonville in 1914 so poor the sheriff had to auction his beloved law books to settle his estate.

Allen wouldn’t rest until Judge Dean’s good name was lifted from disgrace and restored to dignity and his rightful place in history.

That day came February 26, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed a proclamation to posthumously reinstate Judge James Dean to the bench.

“I must say, when I first started, I never thought it would come to this,” Allen said, beaming at the proclamation-signing ceremony in the Governor’s office.

“Finally, justice has arrived.”

As the Governor said: “It was pretty clear that Judge James Dean was unjustly removed from office in 1889. It was a different space and time in our state’s history. But irrespective of how long it’s taken to right this wrong, it is more than appropriate to do so.”

Gov. Bush took delight in mentioning that Dean was a Republican.

“He was accused of marrying a man and a woman, and the accusation was they weren’t from the same race. The fact is that they were. The fact is he was removed inappropriately because the Senate did not act on it,” Bush said.

“The fact is, who cares, to be honest with you, in this day and age? This is a gentleman who served with distinction as a judge, and now by this proclamation we will allow his memory to be one we can be proud of.”

Chief Justice Charles Wells got a big laugh when he stepped up to the podium and said, “As the Governor knows, I’m always looking for additional judges.”

Saying that he is proud to be the chief of a court with two African-American justices — Leander Shaw and Peggy Quince— that reflects the diversity of Florida, Wells noted that Shaw also was a graduate of Howard.

“And so we are particularly pleased with this recognition, this appropriate recognition, in bringing Judge Dean back into the full ranks of the Florida judiciary.”

Allen’s quest to clear Dean’s name began more than three years ago, sparked by an article in the Miami Herald about a judge who had died in 1924 and was described as the first judge elected since Reconstruction in the South.

“Calvin got all upset about it,” recalled 16th Circuit Chief Judge Richard Payne, who also traveled from Key West to Tallahassee for the ceremony.

“He said, ‘No, there was one here in Key West in 1888: Judge James Dean. And I’m going to straighten them out up there in Miami because they have their facts wrong.’”

Allen had remembered reading in his favorite Howard law professor J. Clay Smith Jr.’s 1993 book, The Making of the Black Lawyer: 1844-1944, about the rise and fall of James Dean, a black man who graduated number one in his law class at Howard University in 1884. Born in Ocala in 1858, Dean was described as one in a group of idealistic Howard law graduates who became among the first blacks to practice law in Florida. An 1884 clipping from The New York Globe described Dean as “courteous and thoroughly posted in parliamentary law” and praised his “ability and promise as chairman [of the Florida Negro Convention].”

With assistance from Monroe County historian Tom Hambright, Allen went to the Monroe County Library and pored over the newspaper archives from 1888-89, flinching at details of injustice in a time when the color line was sharply drawn.

Dean, a Republican in Democratic Monroe County, ran against two whites and won the election in 1888 to become the first black judge elected in the South after Reconstruction. Fueled by the majority white and predominantly Democratic power structure that believed blacks were inferior, the Key West newspapers were filled with negative articles about Dean after he won the election.

“They wrote that whites would leave Key West and go to St. Augustine because they didn’t want to get a marriage license from a black judge,” Allen said.

After serving as a judge for less than a year, in 1889, Dean was banned from the bench, when Gov. Francis P. Fleming issued an executive order suspending the judge for malfeasance, based on the erroneous charge that he had issued a marriage license to an interracial couple.

“I read the articles of how prominent Dean was, chair of the Republican party. And 800 went down to the courthouse to protest his removal,” Allen said.

More research led to his death certificate and the discovery that contrary to law, Dean was never afforded the required Senate hearing to remove him from office.

“I felt that would strengthen our position to have him reinstated. The law is the law, and he should be reinstated as a matter of right,” Allen said.

As Judge Payne recalled, Allen shared his idea of having Dean reinstated posthumously.

“And he asked me, ‘Did I ever hear of any such thing?’ And I said, ‘Well, no, but all things are possible,’” Payne recalled.

And so, with the stroke of a pen in 2002, Dean was returned to a place of honor in history, back to the public office he had been elected to more than a century ago.

Allen, chair of the Committee to Restore James Dean Posthumously to Judgeship, insisted it was a team effort: Judge Payne told federal Judge Stephan Mickle of Gainesville of Allen’s mission. Mickle contacted the Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association to ask them to get on board. Craig Gibbs, immediate past president of the Virgil Hawkins Chapter of the NBA, was quick to agree to hire an archivist who tried unsuccessfully to find any descendants of Dean in the Jacksonville area, but did find the poignant final court order of his estate showing his law books were auctioned off after he died.

“It’s very difficult to put that feeling into words, the sadness, the chagrin we felt when we read that order, having his personal effects sold by the sheriff of Duval County,” Gibbs said. “Like the namesake of our organization, Virgil Hawkins, this is also vindication of some of the struggles that prior African-American lawyers had here in Florida. That’s not to say the struggles are not going to continue, but this is one of the many that has finally been rectified and remedied.”

Allen credited J. Allison DeFoor II, a former Monroe County judge, sheriff and member of the Bar Board of Governors, for writing a supportive letter to the Governor.

But DeFoor smiled and shrugged and said: “I’m just a Republican historian who was convinced of the righteousness of Calvin Allen’s cause, because of his persistence. This is his party.”

Indeed, as a small crowd gathered in the Governor’s ceremonial office — including Jesse J. McCrary, Florida’s 19th Secretary of State under Gov. Reuben Askew — the mood was festive.

It was an occasion not to miss for Judge Mickle who said he canceled court to attend.

“This is just one of those stories that sort of reminds you of Rosewood, outside Gainesville,” Judge Mickle said. “At some point, society says it’s time to right a wrong. I wanted to be here today to see that happen.”

And Chief Judge Payne promised there will be another ceremony in Key West to put Judge Dean’s portrait on prominent display in the Monroe County Courthouse — the first in line of all the other judges on the wall.

“We are the legacy,” Judge Payne said. “We are the long line of judicial officers who have served since that time, and he was there earlier. Judge Dean is a part of our family. And so we’re going to do what we can to bring him back into the family, and give him notoriety and dignity and restore his good name. It’s never too late to do that.”

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