Legal Services of Greater Miami, Black History is Our History

Updated: May 11, 2021

BY Jayme M. Cassidy, Esq., Chief Diversity Officer & Pro Bono Advocacy Director

As we celebrate Black History Month Legal Services of Greater Miami is proud to remember our Black attorneys who helped shape our history of access to justice.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were major triumphs for civil rights and legal activists, however, “de facto” segregation still existed because of the economic inequality that plagued Black communities in the United States. Since 1966, Legal Services of Greater Miami[1] has been at the forefront of the struggle for economic and social justice for South Floridians, and Black leadership is in the fabric of our history and success.

These leaders served as staff attorneys during a time in our nation’s history when the deep-seated roots of systemic racial injustice mocked our country’s promise of justice for all. They answered the call to action of the Civil Rights movement and the war on poverty. They are admired for their courage to advocate for justice in a system that was still resisting their inclusion, their outstanding achievements as Black lawyers, and their notable qualities that continue to guide our community.

The Honorable A. Leo Adderly graduated from Howard University School of Law and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1965. Judge Adderly was amongst the first group of nine attorneys to serve in the flagship “Economic Opportunity Legal Services Program, Inc.” as a staff attorney in 1966. He proudly served as an on-site field attorney in the Brownsville neighborhood and was the first Black President of the Legal Services’ Board of Directors. Judge Adderly’s philanthropy includes funding for legal education and civil justice in Florida.

Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry was also a member of the first group of staff attorneys who initially served at Legal Services of Greater Miami in 1966. She was the first Black woman to pass the Florida Bar exam. A true trailblazer, Gwen S. Cherry was Miami-Dade County's first Black female attorney and the first African American woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives. She served four terms advocating for and introducing legislation on behalf of women and minorities before her premature death in 1979.

Today the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association continues to honor her legacy at Legal Services by providing an annual scholarship to a deserving law student who strives to achieve her commitment and dedication to “champion for the rights of all people”.[2]

The Honorable Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. joined Legal Services of Greater Miami as a staff attorney after obtaining his law degree from Howard University School of Law in 1968. He was the first African American to be appointed to the Dade County Circuit Court. During his tenure on the Circuit Court bench, he challenged the deliberate and calculated exclusion of Black people from juries and was appointed to the Third District Court in 1980, once again becoming a pioneer as the first African American judge to serve on the Court. In 1993, he was nominated to the federal bench and held a seat as a United States District Court judge. Upon his death in 2003, the Black Lawyers Association honored his legacy by unanimously voting to rename itself the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association.

H.T. Smith was a staff attorney, a Board member, and then Board President throughout the 1980s. H.T. will proudly tell you that he was enrolled in the University of Miami School of Law’s first class that permitted Black students. He was Miami Dade County's first African American Assistant Public Defender and served as Miami Dade County's first African American Assistant County Attorney. He was the first director of FIU College of Law’s Trial Advocacy Program and is an inspirational speaker to law students and attorneys across the country. His ongoing commitment to professional and community service cannot be measured.

Reflecting upon the tumultuous past year that has adversely affected the Brown and Black low-income communities, it is now more important than ever that we surge forward upon the path paved by our Black leadership and not allow their life’s work to be wasted or forgotten. It is incumbent upon us to continue to ensure that access to justice and economic stability are not lost in the rhetoric of the current state of our nation.

Each one of these Black heroes helped shape and mold the history of Legal Services of Greater Miami. Each has contributed to the positive impact our institution has made for the clients we serve. All are and will continue to be role models for generations to come. Black history and our community are richer for their contributions and sacrifices.

Legal Services is proud that these innovative alumni’s achievements provide a powerful and colorful legacy for our law firm. Black history is Legal Services’ history.

[1] Originally founded in 1966 as the “Economic Opportunity Legal Services Program, Inc.” [2] Former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham eulogized Gwen Cherry "a champion for the rights of all people and a voice of reason and concern."

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