The necessity of her presence

Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry was the first African-American woman to win election to the Florida Legislature; she served from 1970 until 1979. [Florida Memory]

BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief

Have your colleagues ever thought of you as a “curiosity” simply because people with your gender or race, or a combination of both, are typically unseen doing what you do?

Oftentimes unspoken, this is not an odd experience for those who defy stereotypes. She may get this sense when working in a male-dominated profession. He may notice this when his presence racially diversifies an environment.

Some may be curious yet friendly, though not all. This interest in her cannot become her distraction. The need for progress is too great. Her perspective is too valuable to be ignored. Her presence is necessary.

Meet Gwendolyn “Gwen” Sawyer Cherry, a woman of many firsts.

Cherry lived from Aug. 27, 1923, until Feb. 7, 1979. She was an active member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.

In 1970, Cherry became the first African-American woman elected to the Florida Legislature. Although she received her law degree from Florida A&M University (FAMU), Cherry was the first black woman law student to attend the University of Miami.

She was the first black female attorney to practice law in Dade County. In addition, she was one of the first nine attorneys who initially served at Legal Services of Greater Miami. Notably, Cherry was first a teacher in Miami for over 20 years and later became a law professor at FAMU.

Being both an African American and a woman, Cherry understood discrimination and its impact of both race and gender. She was familiar with the idea that a woman has to work harder because of the notion that blacks have to work harder.

She understood the negative impact of having these two labels simultaneously. She used them to serve all people better, as evidenced by Governor Graham’s eulogy when he recognized her as “a champion for the rights of all people and a voice of reason and concern.”

One of the issues Cherry worked on was rape laws. She actively recruited other women, female officers, and attorneys to work in this area. Many of her male peers did not understand her logic, but to her it was simple. She deduced that putting women in an all-male environment would heighten her trauma.

Initially, her male colleagues did not understand, but she was able to expand the conversation because of both her gender and race. Sympathy and empathy are not the same. Her presence is necessary.

As a Legislator, Cherry introduced bills for the Equal Rights Amendment, recognition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. state holiday, as well as other legislation. Among her long list of accomplishments, she co-authored the book “Portraits in Color: the Lives of Colorful Negro Women” to expose her students in Miami to women of color who were deeply concerned about freedom and liberty in America.

In addition, she chaired both the National Organization of Women and the Minority Affairs Committee for the Democratic National Convention. She also was a founder of the National Association of Black Women Attorneys.

During her life, Cherry worked to remove many barriers to equal opportunities for women and persons of color. In 1986, she was honored posthumously in the State of Florida’s Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2008, the FAMU College of Law announced the dedication of the Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry Esquire Lecture Hall.

Cherry’s life illustrates the necessity of her presence. It is too vital to ignore.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author and public servant.

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