john-howe_web.jpgPALM BEACH — More than 500 well-heeled guests showed up at the elegant ballroom of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach to witness history on Saturday.

John Howe, 38, became the first African-American president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association (PBCBA).

The group, comprising some 3,000 lawyers in a county deemed one of the wealthiest in the state, at one point did not accept blacks as members.

Howe, who is of Jamaican descent but was born in West Palm Beach, said he is following in the footsteps of a handful of blacks who fought to integrate the association in 1963.

“It’s overwhelming because of all it represents,” Howe said, minutes after being installed. “It’s about so much more than me.”

Howe picked another history-maker, retired Judge Edward Rodgers, to administer the oath of office.

Rodgers was the first black prosecutor, the first black county and circuit judge and the first black chief  judge of the circuit court in Palm Beach County. A post office in Riviera Beach is named for him – also a first for a retired judge in the county.     

Howe’s election as president of PBCBA  is significant because of the elite history of the Palm Beaches, an area known for old money, wealth and a good-old-boy network.

Many who know Howe, who is also a licensed pilot, say it is not surprising he has made history. In high school, he was the first black student body president at the King’s Academy, a long-standing West Palm Beach private school that he attended from grade 7 through 12.

“Being inducted as the 89th president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association is about much more than me. There are many others who came before me,” he said during his acceptance speech.

He credited three people as having paved the way for him: West Palm Beach attorney-brothers F. Malcolm Cunningham and T.J. Cunningham and I. C. Smith for their persistence in pushing for integration of the bar association whose by-laws once stated that it would accept “white” members of the Florida Bar.

The persistence of the Cunningham brothers and Smith, along with the efforts of attorney William M. Holland succeeded in getting the group to drop “white” from its by-laws in May 1963. Early in 1964, the four lawyers were admitted as dues-paying members.

The black bar association which serves African-American lawyers in the Palm Beaches is named for F. Malcolm Cunningham Sr. The president, Grasford Smith, said his association is still needed despite the integration of the PBCBA.

“The F. Malcolm Cunningham, Sr. Bar Association remains relevant to this day because of the unique set of challenges that African Americans in this community, including those in the legal profession, continue to face,” said Smith, who is active in both groups.  “It remains important for those of us who are focused on these issues to have a space and a forum to dialogue, exchange ideas, and to support one another.”

Howe also is a member of both associations, as well as the Hispanic Bar Association. He said there is value in such affiliations and that he has tried to convince his colleagues in the black association to join the PBCBA but some have been reluctant to do so. 

The PBCBA currently has four African-American board members. The latest, Sia Baker-Barnes, of West Palm Beach, was sworn in the same night as Howe. Barnes is the daughter of Judge Moses Baker a well-known Palm Beach County juvenile judge.

“Tonight represents a moment of excellence in our bar’s history and the notion that we’ve come a long way but we have to keep going,” Howe said, moments after the gathering applauded his installation.

James Howe, who works in finance in Colorado, is not surprised by his younger brother’s accomplishment.
“I feel it was bound to happen eventually and I’m extremely grateful that our family is blessed to have such an ambitious person who is in this for the good of people,” he said.

Their parents, Martin and Rose Howe, who immigrated from Jamaica to the Palm Beaches more than 30 years ago, were present for their son’s big moment.

John Howe, one of four children, said his father, a minister, worked initially as a migrant worker in Belle Glade, eventually becoming a warehouse worker. His mother was a nurse, The couple sent all their children to private school.  All but one sibling, who lives in England, were also on hand.

Howe obtained a bachelor’s degree in finance from Loyola University in New Orleans in 1994 and a joint Master of Business Administration and law degree from the University of Florida in 1998.

He has practiced law for 12 years and is currently a litigator, in addition to handling criminal defense, personal injury, immigration, and commercial litigation  with the firm Lesser, Lesser, Landy& Smith in West Palm Beach.

Daphne Taylor may be reached at