Community Voices

Black in Time: First black woman elected president of ABA to speak at South Florida conference

Paulette Brown, 2015-16 president of the American Bar Association.
Paulette Brown, 2015-16 president of the American Bar Association.

At this month’s annual meeting in Chicago of the American Bar Association, Paulette Brown began her term as the group’s first black woman president.

The association, established in 1878, is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. Current membership is nearly 400,000.

The ABA did not grant membership to people of color prior to 1943, according to its online timeline. During the time of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the United States, black people were limited in every phase of life by law and custom. The first black African-American lawyer was admitted to the ABA in 1950.

Brown is a labor and employment lawyer, and partner and co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at international law firm, Locke Lord LLP in Morristown, New Jersey.

For the traditional year of service as president, she has announced an ambitious list of initiatives to eliminate bias and enhance diversity and inclusion. Her goals: to leverage the power of the ABA members, to promote full and equal diversity, and to end bias in the legal profession and the justice system.

A recent article in the Chicago Defender reported: “Throughout her career, [Brown] has advocated and pushed firms to hire and promote more women and minorities; mentored hundreds of lawyers, mostly women of color, and trained many others on diversity in the workplace.”

Brown earned a B.A. at Howard University and a J.D. at Seton Hall University School of Law. She has held many positions throughout her career including in-house counsel to a number of Fortune 500 companies and a municipal court judge. In private practice, she focused on all facets of labor, employment and commercial litigation.

She was president of the National Bar Association (NBA), in 1993-94. Founded in 1925, the nation’s oldest and largest national association of predominately African Americans has a network of more than 65,000 lawyers, judges, educators, and law students. Attorney H. T. Smith, a native Miamian, succeeded Brown. He was NBA president in 1994-95.

Prior to the NBA, Brown was president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey from 1985-87. That association’s website recognizes her as a featured member stating “Surely, [Brown] was inspired by the accomplished African American female attorneys who she met through ABWL. Her subsequent accomplishments serve as a testament to their vision as well as her own personal drive, hard work, and ambition.”

At the 2015 South Florida’s Women of Color Empowerment Conference on Sept. 19, Brown will be one of the key speakers. Other accomplished speakers include Judge Glenda Hatchett, Gina Paige, Dr. Lanalee Araba Sam, Dr. Edwina Hamilton Bell, Irika Sargent, Marie Waugh, Felecia Hatcher, Gloria Romero Roses, Donise Brown, Pamela Goodman, Richard Rimler, Miguel Southwell, Juliet Murphy Roulhac, David Duckenfield, and others.

The upcoming annual conference will focus of educating and motivating dynamic women of color to lead more effectively. The founding sponsors are the North Broward County Chapter of The Links; the Broward County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; and Zeta Rho Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

The conference runs 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort in Fort Lauderale. The line-up of speakers will feature women and several men sharing a variety of career paths and life stories. For more information visit:

“This is the fifth year of the conference. It was formed as a way to bring women leaders together in an effort to learn from one another and build relationships. The topic of the first year, a full day conference, was the issue of women of color leaders running for public office,” conference chairwoman Burnadette Norris-Weeks said. “We have expanded our topics to include issues of health care, media relations, entrepreneurship, heritage awareness and so many other empowerment issues.”

Norris-Weeks credits the financial commitment of charter members and dedication of advisors for helping ensure that women of color can be successful in various fields utilizing information and resources, to remove barriers, access opportunities, and replicate successes. As a result of the success of the first four conferences, an institute was formed with the overall goal, to become a national institute and a clearinghouse for research and resources regarding Women of Color.

Empowerment is more than a word to the conference directors. Videos of past events provide instruction and inspiration through examples of leadership, networking, and opportunities to improve the quality of one’s life. The continuing theme encourages women of color to move out of their comfort zones, get involved by setting an agenda, and taking action. The lesson shared: Empowerment is not one event, empowerment is a process.

Historically, there are numerous women of color who became empowered and inspired others. ABA President Brown is a national example. In South Florida, Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry (1923-79), is one whose path to empowerment is well documented. A wife and mother, she was a high school teacher for 20 years before studying law. After graduating from Florida A&M University School of Law she became the first black woman from Miami-Dade County to pass the Florida Bar and become an attorney. Later she became the first black woman elected to the Florida Legislature. Her many accomplishments also included international legal advisor of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to