Past and Present: St. Petersburg Bar Association Future in Hands of Its First African-American President
By Michele Hyndman
Michele Hyndman is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and practices in the New York, New York office of Ernst & Young.
St. Petersburg, Florida, has a history of racial segregation and violence. But despite the region’s history, the St. Petersburg Bar Association (St. Pete Bar Association) has embarked on a path that focuses on diversity and inclusion by electing Jeannine Williams its first African-American president for the 2008–2009 term. Before her election as president, Jeannine served as the St. Petersburg Bar Association’s secretary and treasurer in 2008.
Jeannine graduated from Florida A&M University with a B.S. in Economics before attending the University of Florida College of Law. In law school, Jeannine was a member of both the trial team and moot court board. Employed as an attorney for the City of St. Petersburg, Jeannine is a member of the American Bar Association and the Florida Bar Labor and Employment Law and Young Lawyers Sections. She is also a 2004 graduate of Leadership St. Pete. In addition to her past service as secretary and treasurer, Jeannine has been very active in the St. Petersburg Bar Association, previously serving as co-chair of the Diversity Committee and Scholarship Chair for the Young Lawyers Section. Jeannine is also a past president of the Fred G. Minnis, Sr. Bar Association.
Jeannine reports that among the challenges facing the St. Pete Bar Association is increasing diversity among the association’s membership. Because of past racial tensions, Jeannine says that it is difficult to convince or persuade African-American legal professionals that the St. Petersburg community welcomes diversity. African-American law students in the region have the perception that St. Petersburg is not as integrated as its neighboring communities and tend to gravitate toward larger Florida cities after graduation. Thus, it is important for the St. Pete Bar Association to communicate to the African-American legal community that St. Petersburg values and welcomes their contributions.
Jeannine also reports that in addition to the challenge of increasing the number of African-American members, the St. Pete Bar Association is focused on other diversity initiatives. For example, on March 6, 2009, the St. Petersburg Bar celebrated forty years of integration by presenting its first African-American member, Isaiah W. “Ike” Williams, with an award in appreciation of his efforts in pursuing membership.
In 1965, Mr. Williams attempted to join the St. Pete Bar Association but was rejected for membership in a vague attempt to “preserve the image of the bar association”—at that time membership was limited to caucasians. Four years later, the St. Pete Bar Association extended letters of invitation and applications for membership to African-American members of the Florida Bar who lived in St. Petersburg. Of the applications sent, the only application that was accepted for membership was that of Ike Williams. Thus, the St. Pete Bar Association began its diversity efforts in 1969, when Mr. Williams became its first African-American member. Ike Williams opened the door that led to Jeannine Williams’s election as President and to the creation of the Diversity Committee of the St. Pete Bar Association.
The Diversity Committee of the St. Pete Bar Association was created at the turn of the new century with the mission of increasing African-American membership. The Diversity Committee has increased the number of African-American members and encouraged the conversation about diversity among all of its members through seminars. They have partnered with the Fred G. Minnis, Sr. Bar Association and Stetson University College of Law’s Black Law Student Association. In 2001, the St. Pete Bar Diversity Committee created a one of a kind traveling exhibit entitled “A Legacy of Courage, Vision & Hope: African Americans in the Profession in Pinellas County.” The exhibit chronicles the history of African Americans in the legal profession in the St. Petersburg community. In 2003, when the exhibit was completed, it opened at the Florida Holocaust Museum. The exhibit is currently on display at the Carter G. Woodson African-American History Museum in St. Petersburg.
In 2001, the Diversity Committee created a diversity scholar program that offers a scholarship to a minority law student. The Judge Frank H. White Diversity Scholarship is the largest single annual scholarship ($2,500) given to a minority student at Stetson University College of Law. The scholarship is funded through the generous donations of the members of the St. Pete Bar Association.
The St. Pete Bar Association has come a long way from its pre-1969 “whites only” policy to the election of its first African-American president in 2008. The members of the St. Pete Bar Association elected Jeannine as their leader because they have faith that she will not only rise to the challenge of creating a diverse and welcoming environment for their legal community but also provide positive guidance and direction for the bar association’s future.