Community Voices

Black in Time: Gwen Cherry’s enduring legacy creates opportunities

Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry at Florida state capital
Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry at Florida state capital

History is made everyday. Last week Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress on a Drama Series. She was born in 1965. At the 2015 awards show Davis began her acceptance speech reciting a poem written by a once enslaved black (Negro) woman, Harriet Tubman, known as the “Conductress of the Underground Railroad.”

Several years before Davis’ birth, the book “Portraits In Color: The Lives Of Colorful Negro Women,” was written recognizing trail blazing black women like Tubman. The book was published in 1962 by Pageant Press and co-authored by three black educators in Miami: Ruby Thomas Rayford, Pauline Styles Willis, and Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry.

In addition to Tubman, the authors profiled 55 women who attained national and international fame, and achieved success despite racial barriers and a lack of opportunities. The intent was to make their accomplishments part of America’s record to inspire black youth. The book recognizes pioneers Mary McLeod Bethune and Madame C.J. Walker. Other profiles are presented in categories: scholars, musicians, entertainers, authors, lawyers, sports, civic leader business, art and “women to watch,” accomplishments beyond the 1960s.

One of Cherry’s professors at New York University, Anthropologist Ethel J. Alpenfels, wrote the introduction to the Portraits book saying, “this is the first book of its kind ever to be published…a volume of biographies devoted to outstanding Negro women.”

Alpenfels, who is of German decent, contributed to another book, “American Women, The Changing Image,” which was edited by Beverly Cassara. Other contributors included these notable white women: writer and novelist Pearl S. Buck; cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead; and dancer and choreographer, Agnes de Mill.

In a recent conversation, Ruby Rayford, the only living co-author of the Portraits book, stated, “Gwen and I were teachers and Pauline a librarian at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. We wanted to expose our students to women of color who felt deeply and were concerned with America’s basic principles — freedom and liberty. We sought black women who were not afraid to speak their convictions and were relentless in their efforts to succeed.”

After an exhaustive search, no book was located.

Rayford continued: “We decided to write one. As members of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated Gwen and I worked on this and other community projects at the Mary Elizabeth Hotel in Overtown. The hotel was owned and operated by Gwen’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. William B. Sawyer. Our colleague Pauline used her skills as a librarian and contacts as a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, to help guide this project.”

Looking forward to celebrating her 86th birthday this October, Rayford is glad that their book has not been forgotten and that Cherry is being remembered. Rayford continued, “Gwen was always ready to stand up and speak out for what was right. Above all, she was persistent in helping create opportunities for children — especially black youth.”

There were no women lawyers in Miami-Dade County when Gwen Cherry left the county school system. She enrolled at the University of Miami’s Law School and later transferred to Florida A&M University. In 1965, she graduated from FAMU’s College of Law at the top of her class and passed the Florida Bar at her first sitting. Her many firsts are numerous and only a few are presented here.

Cherry was the first black woman attorney in Miami-Dade County and practiced law for five years. During that time she was active in the Democratic Party and later chaired both the Minority Affairs Committee for the Democratic National Convention and the National Organization of Women (NOW). She and activist Roxcy Bolton helped inaugurate the Florida Women’s Archive.

In 1970, she entered politics and was elected to represent Florida’s 96th district. Cherry became the first black woman ever elected to the Florida State Legislature. She supported issues for women, the disadvantaged and minority rights. She introduced bills for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a state holiday.

Her life ended tragically in 1979 when she was killed in an automobile accident in Tallahassee. She was succeeded in the Florida Legislature by Carrie Meek.

Gone but not forgotten, Cherry’s life and activities are highlighted with other profiles for youth in “African Americans In Florida” (1993) by Florida State History Professor, Maxine D. Jones and University of Florida English Professor, Kevin M. McCarthy; a Florida State University dissertation, “Sister Sawyer: The Life and Times of Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry” (1994) by Roderick Dion Waters; and the book “Linkages & Legacies, vol. 1” (2010) by Greater Miami Chapter of The Links, Incorporated.

In 1974, I interviewed Cherry for the bi-centennial book, “Julia’s Daughters: Women In Dade’s History.”

Many who never met Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry see her name associated with locations and programs on a daily basis. To name a few:

▪ Garden 449 located in Windemere, Florida, dedicated by artist Xavier Cortada

▪ Department of Education Child Development Center in Tallahassee

▪ The Gwen Cherry Apartments in Miami

Miami-Dade County Gwen Cherry Park NFL YET Center; and the Gwen Cherry Park Foundation led by attorney H. T. Smith, provide programs for Liberty City youth. The Black Women Lawyers Association in Miami and the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity at the FAMU are both named in her honor.

To ensure that Gwen Sawyer Cherry’s name and service will long be remembered Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Incorporated raises funds for students at the law school. At the sorority’s 2000 Florida Area Conference in Gainesville, the idea was presented by sorority member Katie Williams and received a unanimous vote of support.

On June 5, 2008 in Orlando the FAMU College of Law and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority jointly dedicated The Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry, Esq. Lecture Hall and Endowed Scholarships. The sorority’s major contributors included $10,000 from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida, presented by Cyrus M. Jollivette, and later $10,000 from the grand chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho under the leadership of the 23rd International President, Bonita M. Herring. General support was received from Gloria & Ronald Blocker, Mary & Art Woodard, Vanessa W. Byers, Gloria M. Cox, Garth C. Reeves, Sr., Delores Hart Roberts, Claudia D. Slater, W. Doris Neal, Catherine Gipson, and Wilma Council.

To date, seven scholarships have been given. According to the sorority’s international president, “For generations to come, each time students enter the lecture hall and scholarships are awarded we want the recipients to be inspired by Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry’s deeds and follow her example: be relentless, never slack up, use their talent to produce good and create opportunities for themselves and others.”

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

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