FORT LAUDERDALE — Henry Latimer was the first African-American circuit court judge in Broward County, and was in line to become the first African-American president of the Florida Bar when he was killed in a car accident in South Florida. Latimer was appointed to Broward Circuit Court by Governor Bob Graham in 1979. He was retained in that seat in an election the following year.
As Black History Month winds down, the City of Fort Lauderdale stepped up and researched the history of African Americans in the legal and judicial field who had a significant impact on history. Latimer’s contributions, and many others, were the focus at the fifth Walk Through History event Monday evening at the Broward Performing Arts Center.
With the help of Commissioner Bobby B. DuBose, the city amalgamated its African-American history, most of which is unwritten. The program highlighted local and national history that changed the course in America forever. Attorney Eugene Pettis, first African American president of Florida Bar Association and the six African-American judges that serve at the Broward County Courthouse were part of the celebrations.
A reception at the Pride of Fort Lauderdale Elks Lodge, immediately followed the event. One of the main presentations of this year’s event is the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1954. Photos representing the 1954 Supreme Court decision – Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 lined the atrium allowing guests to take a step back in time. The highlight of the evening though was a re-enactment of Brown vs. Board of Education – the case that forever shaped public education.
Many historians have identified the Brown case as the pivotal moment in the history of American race relations and the beginning of a broad civil rights movement that escalated in the 1960s.
“Our national history laid the foundation for state and local activists and history-makers to emerge. Without the marches and protests that led to widespread, global attention, the grassroots local voices may have gone unheard,” organizers said in a statement. “The Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opened the doors for our very own local, state and national history makers. From the Wade-in to the desegregation of schools, our trailblazers didn’t wait for doors to be opened instead they forged ahead and successfully knocked down doors that had previously been closed to African Americans.”
A few historical facts:
• In April 1949 Virgil Hawkins and five other African-Americans applied for admission to professional schools at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They were denied on the basis of race, and the NAACP filed a lawsuit. In June 1958, nine years after filing his application, Hawkins sacrificed his own ambition by withdrawing his application for an agreement that other African-Americans would at last be permitted to enroll at the UF Law School. Hawkins earned a law degree elsewhere, but his civil rights activities cost him his license.
• The door that Hawkins kicked down allowed W. George Allen to walk through. In 1962 Allen became the first African-American graduate of the University of Florida Law School.
• In 1970, Allen launched Broward’s desegregation efforts; he won a landmark lawsuit forcing the integration of schools. For the next 25 years, Allen was Broward’s desegregation watchdog, the man federal judges turned to when they wanted to know whether the Broward School Board was doing the right thing for black children.
• In 1971, Judge Zebedee Wright became the first black male graduate of the Florida State University College of Law.
• In 1972, Thomas J. Reddick was appointed the first black circuit court judge. Reddick was Broward’s first black assistant public defender, first black Court of Record judge and the first black to serve by assignment on the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
• In 1977, Alcee L. Hastings was appointed circuit court judge, serving until 1979. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated Hastings as the first black to the U. S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, where he served until 1989. Hastings was the first black from Broward County elected to serve in Congress, from 1993 to present.
• Alcee knocked down the doors for State Sen. Christopher Smith and State Rep. Perry Thurston.
• In 1991, Carole Y. Taylor was appointed county court judge, followed by appointment as a circuit judge, in 1995. Taylor, in 1998, was the first black woman appointed to serve on the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
• In 2013, Cynthia Everett became Fort Lauderdale’s first African-American city attorney.
• Paving the way for young attorneys was attorney Raleigh Rawls who was the first African-American in Broward County to pass the Florida Bar; he graduated from law school in 1957. Rawls recalled meeting former Atlanta Mayor [Andrew Young] at Howard University. While in town for a visit Young had the opportunity to speak with Judge Michael Robinson who asked Young if he recalled Rawls from those days at Howard. Robinson quoted Young, regarding his recollection of his classmate. “He was one of the smartest persons at Howard that I had ever met, including whites and Blacks.”