Legal Divas of Color: Gwen S. Cherry

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Legal Divas of Color: Gwen S. Cherry

Born in Miami, Florida in 1923, Gwen Sawyer Cherry was a trailblazer like no other.  She earned three degrees between 1946 and 1965, while mothering two children.  Her bachelor’s degree and law degree were from Florida A&M University; she also earned a master’s degree in science from New York University and studied at three other out-of-state universities. She later returned to FAMU to be a law professor.

Upon her graduation from law school, Ms. Cherry became Miami-Dade County’s first African American female attorney.

After careers as a teacher and a lawyer, Ms. Cherry was elected to the Florida House in 1970. Ms. Cherry was the first African-American woman elected to the Florida Legislature.  While in office, she introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, chaired the state’s committee for International Woman’s Year in 1978, and co-authored Portraits in Color: the Lives of Colorful Negro Women with Pauline Willis and Ruby Thomas. Additionally, Ms. Cherry chaired the Minority Affairs Committee for the Democratic National Convention and the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1972 while serving as legal counsel for the National Organization for Women (NOW)’s Miami chapter.

Tragically, Ms. Cherry died in a Tallahassee car accident in 1979. In his eulogy, then Florida Governor Graham called Gwen Cherry  ‘a champion for the rights of all people and a voice of reason and concern.’

At FAMU, a lecture hall was dedicated to Ms. Cherry for all of her hard work and dedication. There is a park in Miami that bears her name, as a testament to her work to benefit the youth.

In 2005, what was previously known as the National Bar Association Women Lawyers Division Dade County chapter was renamed Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association in her honor.

I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors for this organization.

Gwen S. Cherry, I thank you for being one of the ORIGINAL Legal Divas!!

 

Legal Divas of Color: Jane Bolin

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Jane Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, NY on April 11, 1908. Her father was an attorney, and cared for young Jane after her mother died. A brilliant student, she graduated top of her class at Wellesley College, in spite of the challenges presented due to the racist views of her classmates and teachers. Imagine going to school, and everyone ignoring you, day after day; this is what Ms. Bolin had to overcome. She was discouraged from pursuing her goal of becoming an attorney, most notably by her college career counselor. Pushing on, Ms. Bolin became the first woman of color to receive a law degree from the very prestigious Yale Law School in 1931.

In her professional career, Ms. Bolin was the first African American to join the New York City Bar Association. She became the first African American assistant corporate counsel for New York City (New York Law Department). Her smarts and tenacity did not go unnoticed. Mayor Fiorello Laguardia called her to appear with him at the World’s Fair on July 22, 1939. The mayor gave her the biggest surprise of her career; he appointed her as a judge, making her the FIRST African American judge in the United States! She was 31 at the time of appointment.

Judge Bolin served in the Family court division until her mandatory retirement at age 70. She was reappointed three more times by three different mayors. She took on racist policies, and fought for the rights of children and parents of all races. Until her death in 2007, she served on a variety of boards, including the NAACP. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on a holistic program aimed at reducing crime in the male juvenile population.

Judge Jane Bolin, I thank you for being the ORIGINAL Legal Diva

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Legal Divas of Color: Charlotte E. Ray

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Charlotte E. Ray was born in New York in January 1850. She was a daughter of a slavery abolitionist — highly intelligent with a will of steel. She decided to go to law school at a time that women and African Americans were not welcome. Knowing this, she got creative. She submitted her application as C.E. Ray, tricking the admissions committee into thinking she was a man. She succeeded, and attended Howard University School of law in Washington, D.C. Ms. Ray excelled in her coursework, with her specialty being corporate law. Her classmates were very impressed by her, noting that she was an apt student.

Ms. Ray graduated, and in 1872 became the FIRST woman to be admitted to the DC Bar…and the first woman of color to practice law in the US. Later, she became the FIRST woman to be granted permission to argue cases before the US Supreme Court.

She opened her own firm, advertising in famous activist Frederick Douglass’ newspaper to attract clients. Being aware of the biases of the day, she continued the use of the name C.E. Ray. Unfortunately, it was just too hard, and she had to close her firm. Never being one to sit idle, she became a teacher in Brooklyn, NY. Ms. Ray was part of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as being an early member of the NAACP.

She died in NY in January 1911. Her legacy of firsts should never be forgotten.

Charlotte E. Ray, I thank you for being the ORIGINAL Legal Diva

Detention or Jail? New Choices for Disruptive Students

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The school to prison pipeline. You may have never heard of it, but it is a growing issue.  Across the nation, students are being arrested for minor offenses.  Offenses that twenty years ago, would have gotten the student sent home, given detention, or at worst, suspended. Now, students are getting criminal records for misdemeanor charges such as loitering, trespass, and disorderly conduct — which boils down to fighting, staying on school grounds after hours, or being disruptive in class.

Last week, the country’s 6th largest school district, located in Broward County, Florida, took a large step in a new direction.  The superintendent of Broward County schools came together with the state attorney’s office, the police department, and the NAACP to empower school principals to decide when and how students would be arrested.  In the past, it was the school resource officer who made these determinations. The NAACP became involved, because they noted that a large amount of those arrested were students of color…and their peers were receiving warnings instead.

The new policy states that for non-violent charges like trespassing, harassment, incidents related to alcohol, possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, school officials are to work it out in house without an arrest. Options for punishment, in addition to traditional means, include participation in a week-long counseling program. No student would be arrested for a first time non-violent misdemeanor, but repeat offenses will receive an escalation in punishment. After a fifth incident, students are referred to law enforcement. The police will still handle felonies or serious threats.

This school to prison pipeline issue may be occurring as a result on our shifting society. In years past, there was a parent or relative that would be available to take a child from school.  Schools were more engaged with the family and the community. Now, with many parents working more than one job to make ends meet, or are the head of a single parent household, it is easier for the school to call the police than for the parent to leave work.  Some parents may be short on patience, and hope that an encounter with the criminal justice system will “scare them straight”.  Other parents may have deeper issues preventing them from being a role model and disciplinarian. On the other side, many schools and teachers are overworked as well as underfunded.  “Zero tolerance”, rather than taking the time to work with the child, is perceived as easier when resources are stretched thin.  Lastly, many beneficial after school programs, including organized sports, arts/crafts, and meals programs, have been cut in an attempt to save money.  These programs are instrumental in keeping kids on the right track, keeping them busy with positive activities. In these days of recessions and budget cuts, lawmakers need to be mindful of the trickle-down effect the lack of programming has, including an increase in criminal activity.

The key problem lays in the fact that very rarely does the criminal justice system help a child.  That initial contact often lays the groundwork for repeated criminal conduct, due the child being exposed to more experienced teens. Additionally, the child now develops a criminal record, which becomes a problem when applying for jobs, as well as financial aid for college.

The bottom line is, it takes a village to raise a child. As a prosecutor, I handled juvenile cases early in my career. The majority of the kids I saw were not bad kids.  It was the usual mischief that kids have gotten into from the beginning of time.  But putting kids in the system without addressing the underlying issues that caused the behavior is a formula for disaster.  Broward County has already seen a decrease in arrests as a result of this program, with positive feedback being given all around.  I hope that other school districts take their rightful place as a safe haven for learning, rather than a route to prison.

Published on theLaw.tv November 12, 2013.  http://news.thelaw.tv/2013/11/12/detention-or-jail-new-choices-for-disruptive-students/

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