The bar in black and white, UF Law alumni played key roles in organization’s segregation, redemption

April 27, 1950, would be the last and most consequential convention of the old Florida Bar Association. In an Ormond Beach hotel William McRae (JD 33) led the debate about whether to abolish the association. Under an order of the Florida Supreme Court, all practicing lawyers in the state would now be members of an integrated bar.Its key responsibility then and continuing today would be disciplining its members: reprimanding, suspending and disbarring unethical and dishonest lawyers. The question before that 1950 convention was whether to continue operation of a statewide, voluntary association even as the disciplinary functions were incorporated into the obligatory, integrated bar.
McRae, whose future included the presidency of The Florida Bar and a federal district judicial appointment by President Kennedy, may have boasted the most impressive resume in the room. In addition to his degree from UF Law, McRae had been a Rhodes Scholar before the war and held a master’s degree from Oxford. He left the U.S. Army Air Corps with the rank of colonel in 1945. At the San Francisco Conference the same year he looked out for U.S. security interests as an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff while the United Nations charter was written, according to William A. McRae Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections in the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida. McRae was partner in the law fi rm that would later become Holland & Knight, arguably the most influential in Florida.
Next to his professional and scholarly credentials, the argument that McRae would advance is all the more jarring. There were only a handful of black lawyers practicing in 1950 Florida and an integrated, professional bar would now include all of them. Many at the convention feared that professional integration of the bar would lead to racial integration of the bar’s social activities.
“If you have all men, regardless of race, creed, previous conditions of servitude, and whether the effect of slum or what condition or position may be, if all of those are brought into the integrated bar then what with respect to one of the most important phases of our work as a volunteer organization?” McRae asked the convention. “The solution is a rather simple one. The work of the bar as a profession is participated in by everyone … But, as to social occasions, they will, as they are at this present convention, be handled under the control and the sponsorship of the local associations.”
In the aftermath of World War II, the rumblings of the civil rights movement were just beginning in Florida. Blacks had begun to demand equal treatment under the law, and one member of the convention alluded to the fact that Virgil D. Hawkins, a Bethune-Cookman College offi cial, was suing to secure a place at UF Law.

In the aftermath of World War II, the rumblings of the civil rights movement were just beginning in Florida. Blacks had begun to demand equal treatment under the law, and one member of the convention alluded to the fact that Virgil D. Hawkins, a Bethune-Cookman College official, was suing to secure a place at UF Law.

Would it be long before demands were forthcoming that black lawyers be admitted to the lunches, dinners and conventions of The Florida Bar?

John T. Wiggington (JD 32), soon to take offi ce as president of the integrated bar, elaborated on how racial segregation could be maintained: “That if perchance there is in attendance upon our meetings, some members of the bar who are of the colored race, that the invitations to social functions can be so handled that they will not be invited and therefore no  friction  would  arise  or  no  unpleasant  occurrences take place.”

This history, recorded in the proceedings of the convention  published  in  the  June  1950  issue  of The Florida Law Journal,  underscores  the  signifi cance  of  another  UF  Law graduate’s accomplishment. After his 2011 election, Eugene K. Pettis (JD 85) is slated to become the fi rst black president of The Florida Bar in 2013.

(Pettis  is  joined  by  Glendell  Jones  as  a  black  UF  Law graduate  to  achieve  a  major  leadership  milestone.  Jones starts  July  1  as  president  of  Henderson  State  University,  a public liberal arts college in Arkadelphia, Ark.)

“It’s amazing that it took 61 years for it to happen,” Pettis said during a break at a January Board of Governors meeting in Tallahassee. “I’m certainly not the fi rst (black person) who was a member of this bar who was qualifi ed to do it. But the doors were not opened in the past.”

ALLEN’S FIGHT

In 1958, Hawkins withdrew his application at UF Law in return for a settlement that racial integration would come to all University of Florida graduate and professional schools.

W. George Allen (JD 62) would run through the  door  that  Hawkins  worked  nearly  a  decade to open. Allen was the fi rst black person to earn a degree from UF Law, the University of Florida or any previously whites-only college in Florida. He tells the story of Florida educational integration in a self-published new memoir, Where the Bus Stops.

After  his  graduation  from  UF  Law,  Allen moved to Fort Lauderdale where the pugnacious (and pugilistic: he once decked a fellow UF Law student who said, “get out of the way boy” and gave Allen a push as both tried to register for a class) Sanford native had more integrating to do. This time it was related to The Florida Bar and the Broward County Bar Association.

During  the  1960s,  the  county  voluntary bar   associations   brought   disciplinary   grievances to the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar. These local bars were often, if not always, whites-only clubs.

“I said if they are going to set my fees and discipline me then I want to be a member,” Allen explained in a telephone interview from his Fort Lauderdale office. “In ’64 I applied for membership.”

Allen  called  on  the  Gator  Nation  for  help. A  reference  was  required  from  a  member  of the  Broward  County  Bar  for  admission  so Allen asked classmates Morton Perlin (JD 62) and Charles M. Prince (JD 61) to vouch for him. Allen said he issued threats of a lawsuit in addition to  his  classmates’  reference.  But  in  due  course Allen was admitted to the Broward County Bar and in 1988 he became president.

Chesterfi eld Smith (JD 48) was another UF Law  graduate  unafraid  to  upset  the  apple  cart. Smith, of Bartow, started out as a law partner to McRae, and he would build Holland & Knight into the powerhouse we know today. In his spare time, Smith served as Florida Bar president 1964 to 1965 and as American Bar Association president  1973  to  1974  when  he  issued  one  of  the most  devastating  condemnations  of  President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal: “No man is above  the  law.” Allen  said  Smith’s  encouragement and assistance led him to become a national delegate to the ABA and he was appointed to key ABA  committees.  In  1975,  Smith  attended Allen’s inauguration as president of the National Bar Association, an organization devoted to the interests of black lawyers.

By 35, Allen, who had worked in the celery fields near Sanford as a kid, was driving around Fort Lauderdale in a yellow Rolls Royce.

PETTIS ASCENDS

Pettis  entered  a  different  world  in  1978 when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University  of  Florida.  Pettis  was  the  youngest of seven children of a Fort Lauderdale maintenance man and teaching assistant who sent all their  children  to  college.  He  was  doubtful  at first  about  enrolling  at  Florida,  thinking  it  had “too many white students and it’s too big.”

A scholarship offer helped change his mind. “When I got to Florida I found every opportunity if I was willing to go out and work for it.”

In 1985, Pettis graduated from UF Law as a  double  Gator,  having  served  as  treasurer  of the student body and a member of Florida Blue Key.

In 1991, fellow UF Law alumnus and former  Gov.  Lawton  Chiles  (JD  55)  appointed Pettis as the fi rst black person to serve on the South  Florida  Water  Management  District.  In 2005, the personal injury, medical malpractice and  employment  lawyer  with  Haliczer  Pettis & Schwamm was elected to the bar’s Board of Governors.  Pettis  claimed  the  Broward  County  (17th  Circuit)  seat  that  one  of  his  mentors, Henry  Latimer,  held  before  his  death  in  a  car accident. Pettis fi gures that Latimer, a one-time judge who had returned to private practice, had been  on  track  to  be  the  fi rst  black  Florida  Bar president. When Pettis ran for bar president last year he faced no opposition.

Among  the  bar’s  priorities  in  2012  is  encouraging more minority lawyers to participate in bar activities. “The bar is going to recognize its true strength when we can recognize the involvement of all people, when we can harness that diversity,” Pettis said.

As this happens, Pettis expects that he will soon enjoy company at the top. “I think it’s worthy of note that I will be the first. I don’t think it will be too long before there’s a second.”