On Being the First: An Interview With Bernice Gaines

Bernice Gaines is the first black woman to practice law in the state of Florida. She graduated from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (“FAMU”) in 1954. In a discussion with her daughter, Angela Dorn, she provided some insight on her journey to into the legal profession.

You were the first African American woman to practice law in the state of Florida. That makes you part of the history books. Why did you decide to go to law school?

I went to law school because someone told me that they thought I would make a good lawyer. This was in 1954. I was a young woman, and I had just graduated from FAMU with a degree in psychology. Although I really liked psychology, without at least a master’s degree in the field I was unemployable. So I had no idea what to do after graduation. I was raised by my mother who had never attended high school, let alone college, so she had no career advice. My mother had paid for my college education on her own with her wages as a migrant farm worker. She believed in education and possibilities; she said that she would support me however she could in whatever I wanted to do.

I had been invited to apply to law school at FAMU before I graduated from college. I was a champion member of the college debate team and the faculty sponsor for the debate team told me that I could probably be a very good lawyer. She suggested that I go to FAMU’s law school. This small bit of encouragement shaped my life.

FAMU was a historically black college and a very small community. Professors tended to look out for students. The dean of the law school, Thomas Jenkins, was a lawyer from the Boston area; I think that made him a little more progressive. He took a special interest in me.

The first week of law school he reached out to me and asked me how I was doing for money. The other 8 students in my law school class were former servicemen, who were attending law school on the GI bill. Having no GI bill to rely on, I was relatively broke. I told the Dean that I had been promised in the psychology department (where I was a former student) for $25 a month and that my mother was also helping me financially. Dean Jenkins offered me a job at the law school which paid $50 per month so that I would be on the same economic footing as my male classmates. That made a huge difference.

How challenging was it to become Florida’s first black woman lawyer? Was being the first a goal of yours?

As I reflect on my path now, I can see that there were many challenges but I never focused on them at the time I was facing them. I never thought of myself as a future woman lawyer or black woman lawyer. I knew that I had to support myself so my focus was on learning enough in school to competently practice law. I really believed that I controlled my own destiny. I always thought of the poem “Invictus”. I was the master of my fate; I was the captain of my soul.

FAMU law school was the “separate but equal” law school that the state of Florida had created in order to segregate the blacks and whites in graduate school. In 1949, Virgil Hawkins had applied for and been denied admission to the University of Florida School of Law, which was the premier law school in the state, due to his race. Florida’s courts ruled that this segregation was ok, as long as the state created a law school for African Americans. In 1951 the first class was admitted into FAMU’s College of Law. When I attended FAMU’s law school, it had less than 50 students. That didn’t matter. The state of Florida was willing to pay millions every year to run the school as long they could ensure that blacks wouldn’t get access to an education with whites.

Not being allowed to attend the white law schools in Florida didn’t disturb me; I guess I was brainwashed into accepting some things as they were. I was used to segregation, and I lived my entire life within that system without a lot of objection. The Brown case was decided just before I entered law school, but I had no real expectation that white people would integrate southern schools anytime soon.

I was a great student in law school and I was very much accepted by my classmates and professors. I also had family support, since my mother supported my goals. However, some people in my life did not want me to succeed.

I lived off campus in a black neighborhood in Tallahassee that was a few miles from the law school. I knew several married couples in my neighborhood who were working while I was in graduate school. Some of my neighbors were my age; many were a good decade older than me. What I liked about the neighborhood was that I felt like it was a working-class black neighborhood, where most people were friendly and very supportive of each other. I remember that we would often play cards together all night on the weekends. The married couples came together. I usually brought a friend to the game.
They socialized with me, but some of the men seemed to have an attitude about my being in law school. They questioned why I was in law school “anyway”, and asked why I wasn’t pursuing marriage given my limited “social experiences”, all of these questions were supposedly in the name of good fun.

One night a couple of men tried to break into my apartment. My heart was racing, but I could hear the men’s voices just outside my door, and I recognized them. They were two older married men, who part of the couples that I socialized with. I heard my friends and neighbors say that they wanted to get into my apartment to “teach me a thing or two”. I have no doubt that some of their interest in attacking me related to my being an audacious black woman, who had the nerve to pursue a professional degree when they weren’t professionals.

I felt like I was nearly scared to death that night. My door was locked and bolted. I put furniture and myself in front of the door to keep it blocked. After what seemed like hours the men eventually gave up. They were trying to commit a crime against someone they knew, but the guys were really matter-of-fact about the whole thing. That really taught me that some men are dirty dogs when it comes to their behavior.

Even though I was in law school, I did not call the police about the attempted break-in. I was probably too young and stupid to think of doing that, and knew that this type of thing was just a part of life for a black woman. I just made up my mind to get out of the apartment and out of the neighborhood. Dean Jenkins once again came to my rescue. I told him about the near attack. I told him about the situation and he arranged for me to move out of my apartment and into the home of one of FAMU’s house mothers in a matter of hours. It’s strange to say, but once I was in a safe place, I forgot about the incident and got back to focusing on my studies.

Still, she persisted.

It’s probably worth saying that there was some tension between the races when I was at FAMU. FAMU was located in Tallahassee and was the only law school in the state’s capital. When the pro-segregation Florida state bar association met, they would meet at FAMU because they liked the layout of the law school.

I remember hearing a number of speeches by the bar association that were offensive. One of the more offensive talks was by a white lawyer who gave a speech about the law and the future of “the cracker crop”, meaning their white children. His speech was all about what white Floridians had to do to preserve the status quo for themselves and their kids. While I don’t remember all of the details, I do recall that it was a pretty pointed discussion about the need to maintain white supremacy for their “crop” in spite of the Brown decision.

I thought it was disgusting that the Florida Bar Association was sponsoring a discussion about the importance of segregation and Jim Crow laws at the law school that racism had created, in front of the very people they were discriminating against. This was pretty typical of the time. I tried to walk out of the talk but one of my professors insisted that I stay put since I made the choice to attend the speech, and we were pretty much outnumbered.

I was a very good student in law school. I really enjoyed the subject matter so none of the attitudinal challenges that I faced in school stopped me. Of the 9 students in my class, I was the only woman and the student with the highest grades.

Psychologically, I did not have any thoughts about being the first black woman to practice law in Florida because I did not even realize that I was in the process of making history. I never thought one way or another about whether there were black women practicing law in Florida. I just assumed that there were.

After I passed the bar, Dean Jenkins told me that I was the first black woman to pass the Florida bar and that I had passed with the highest bar score of anyone from my school. I was kind of amazed. I was glad that he hadn’t told me that I was making history until after I took the bar. Now, all I needed was a job.

The Practice

I was excited about practicing law, but finding a job was not easy.

The whole world was excited for me, but few people wanted to hire a woman to serve as a lawyer – black or white. I needed to support myself. Nobody really had ideas for jobs for me. A lot of people suggested that I run for office or otherwise capitalize on my position “as a first”. That was something I had little interest in because I saw politics as something corrupt, and not as being part of the legitimate practice of law.

I interviewed in a few places. I got a job at a law firm that was led by an African American lawyer who was practicing law representing the African American community in Jacksonville, Florida. Predictably, the job did not pay much. My closest co-worker was a black man who earned as much as I did, but who had not yet passed the bar. I later learned that a number of people had practiced law – for a short time – at Jackson’s firm.

The firm practice centered on family law. It had a lot of contact with the black community and seemed to try to take advantage of those contacts. Jackson overcharged some clients and stole outright from others. I quit the Jackson firm and returned to FAMU law school to teach a course in contracts. I stayed there until I got married, and moved out of the state of Florida. My career in law was cut short by love – first of my husband, and later of my children.

What Should Black Women Do Now? We have Oprah and memories of Barack Obama. Are we okay?

Today things are worse for black people than we realize. We have been lulled into a false sense of security because we had a black president for a couple of years. The 2016 presidential election and its aftermath are evidence of course that many Americans are as hostile towards black people in the 21st century as they were in the 19th. We as a people are falling back. I get really agitated when I see black people, black women, in particular, supporting a Trump type person. We have to get together and exert our power, then support each other and people who support us.

Look at the results of the Jones versus Moore race in Alabama! We did that. On the other hand, think about what would have happened to black people in Alabama if black women (and men) had not gotten out and voted en masse.

With the Civil Rights movement, we supported our men and black women did not really get to participate at a high level. Today it seems clear that black women have a clear role to play in political change. We are a powerful force when we vote together in support of our mutual interests, instead of focusing on what we think are our personal interests. And more of us need to run for office and seek positions of leadership.

Collectively, I think that we really have to rely on and focus on black women first as a source of our power. I was married to a wonderful black man whom I loved for close to 50 years, but it has been my experience that black men have not always been black women’s greatest allies. Their interests and ours do not always align. Men often seem to be wary of women, and what we might do for ourselves without them. For example, it’s been my experience that black men have long complained that black women were their downfall and that black women did not adequately support their men. This was all because black women could get jobs in white people’s kitchens when whites wouldn’t hire black men at all. Black men were angry about this for 100 years, even though a lot of these jobs exposed women to the worst of circumstances, next to no pay, sexual harassment, even rape. That’s how many men are though – black or white – foolish dogs.

I am glad that things are better for us as a people today, but as I said I don’t think we are as far along as we think we are, or as far along as we are going to be if we stay strong.

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  1. iman50

    This is Anthony Bailey. I never knew that fact about your mother. Wonderful.

    • Angela

      Hi Anthony Bailey /jamaicanlaw – It’s taken a while to get a handle on this “discus”! Thank you for your comment! Yes, my mother is something. She is still as argumentative as any lawyer out there today. : )


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