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Florida’s first black lawyers

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Florida’s first black lawyers

Judge June C. McKinney

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C hief Justice Peggy A. Quince made Florida’s First Black Lawyers (1869-1979) one of her Supreme Court initiatives, and the Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter National Bar Association (VHFCNBA) has implemented the project by researching and writing the history of the first black lawyers admitted to practice in Florida. The work is being published in a book that will be unveiled at a Legacy Gala on Saturday, June 27, 2009, at the Orlando World Center Resort.

Seated from the left in this old photo are Virgil Hawkins, Calvin Mapp, and Joseph Hatchett. Standing from the left are H.T. Smith and Father Theodore Gibson. “This history project fosters a full understanding of the struggles and accomplishments of Florida’s first black lawyers, inspires current and future lawyers, and promotes meaningful diversity in the profession,” said Chief Justice Quince. “It is important for all of the people of the State of Florida. This history will be distributed statewide to all of Florida’s ‘D’ and ‘F’ public schools and to the law school libraries,” “VHFCNBA feels privileged to truly build on our legacy by both identifying our history and making history. The book will make a great contribution to the statewide libraries,” VHFCNBA President Rachelle Munson said.

An oral history is also being captured and a video presentation will be shown at the Legacy Gala. Chief Justice Quince personally conducted the interview of 94-year-old former Judge John D. Johnson, who served on the City of Miami Negro Municipal Court in the 1950s. Judge Johnson’s portrait now hangs in the historic Dade County Courthouse even though he could not preside there in 1955 because of segregation. The VHFCNBA’s three living founding members — Judge I.C. Smith, T.J. Cunningham, and Raleigh Rawls — are also among those being interviewed for the video presentation.

The book includes rich Florida history such as John Wallace, a former slave who became a Florida attorney in 1874; Joseph Lee, who in 1876 was the first black person considered for the position of lieutenant governor in Florida; Charles Wilson, Sr., who was vice president and general
counsel of Jim Walter Homes; Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who has been in private practice for 39 years — longer than any other black woman in the state of Florida; Paul C. Perkins, the first black Orlando city prosecutor; Leah Simms, who in 1981 became the first black woman judge in the state of Florida; and Nathaniel Speights, who represented Monica Lewinsky in the 1998 White House scandal.

The integration of The Florida Bar is also captured in the history book. Admittance to The Florida Bar has occurred in various ways throughout history. Some black applicants obtained white attorneys to vouch for their character, petitioned for admission, and then underwent examination by a committee appointed by a circuit court judge. For example, James Weldon Johnson’s oral examination in 1897 lasted two grueling hours. In addition, the history book tells of how blacks, like Judge Edward Rodgers, were paid to attend out-of-state law schools. Others, like retired Justice Leander Shaw, were required to take the Florida bar exam in segregated seating areas. The book also depicts the now extinct “diploma privilege” policy, which exempted graduates of Florida law schools from taking the bar exam, but did not apply to blacks who were not allowed to attend such schools.

Approximately 18 Florida Firsts graduated from the original Florida A&M University College of Law, while 45 others graduated from Howard University Law School because segregation prohibited blacks from attending Florida law schools during that time. The integration of Florida law schools is detailed through the profiles featured in the book.

Virgil Hawkins’ battle to gain admission to the University of Florida College of Law is recounted, as well as the stories of George Allen and Judge Stephen Mickle, the first and second black graduates from the law school. The book also unveils the ironic story of how Judge Thomas Stringer became the first black graduate from Stetson University College of Law School in 1974, although Judge I.C. Smith could not attend Stetson College because of his race more than 20 years earlier, despite it being within walking distance of his home. Judge Zebedee Wright is featured as the first black male graduate of Florida State University College of Law in 1971. And, the history book reveals the significance of the University of Miami School of Law’s “Class of 1973,” which included black lawyers James Burke, Harold Fields, Judge William Johnson, Howard Johnson, George Knox, Henry Latimer, Sonja Mathews, and H. T. Smith (who graduated a semester early in January of 1973).

“It is important that the legal community gets to celebrate this historical event,” said President Munson. “Everyone is invited to the Legacy Gala to be part of history when the Florida’s First Black Lawyers (1869-1979) book is unveiled.”

For more information about the Florida’s First project, go to www.vhfcnba.org.