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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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‘Before the Law Was Equal’ explores racism in court system

Retired appellate Judge E.J. Salcines, whose long legal career has had a major impact on Tampa history, recalls that his first encounter with prejudice in the Hillsborough County court system came when he was in the seventh grade.

Recounting his story in a new locally produced documentary, “Before the Law Was Equal,” Salcines, 75, remembers getting a “junior deputy badge” from the downtown sheriff’s office and then going to the nearby courthouse where a trial was underway.

He slipped into the 1940s courtroom and sat in a back row until a bailiff tapped him on the shoulder and told him to move out of the black section. Blacks were relegated to the back two rows. And blacks could not serve on juries.

It would be decades before things began to change, and it was a slow process. By the early 1960s, the Hillsborough County Courthouse water fountains and restrooms were still “white” and “colored,” and all-male, all-white juries where the norm.

There were no female lawyers, and it was difficult for black lawyers to practice here. It was 1972 before the Hillsborough County Bar Association changed its charter to allow black lawyers to join, long after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Before the Law Was Equal,” produced by the Hillsborough County Bar Association, is making its debut today during the Gasparilla International Film Festival. The 53-minute film shows at 6 tonight in the Muvico Centro Ybor 20 in Ybor City.

It features interviews with several Tampa people who lived through the changes, including some who personally faced discrimination such as National Bar Association Hall of Fame member Delano Stewart, 78, a longtime Tampa lawyer and the first black public defender in Hillsborough County.

He remembers a time when black lawyers were not allowed to eat in any of the restaurants near the courthouse.

Also interviewed is Warren Dawson, who became the first black assistant attorney for Tampa and worked as counsel for 27 years on a school desegregation lawsuit that was filed in 1958 against the Hillsborough County school district. Hillsborough public schools didn’t integrate until the 1970s. Dawson remembers “an amazing coincidence” that took place over 10 years. Only two black applicants would pass the Florida Bar exam each time it was given, no matter how many blacks took it.

“We wanted to get these stories on film while we still had these eyewitnesses to the history of Tampa’s legal system,” says Rachael Greenstein, who co-edited the production.

Since the documentary was completed last year, two of the interviewees have passed away: William Reece Smith, Jr. a former Tampa city attorney and Hillsborough County Bar Association president who championed civil rights, died at age 87; and former Hillsborough Judge Don Castor, father of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, of Tampa, died at age 81.

Also in the film is Gwynne Young, a trial lawyer who was Hillsborough County’s first female prosecutor, in 1974 under then State Attorney E.J. Salcines.

A shareholder at Carlton Fields in Tampa, where she has practiced since she was 27, Young was the fifth woman to lead Florida’s more than 93,000 lawyers when she was president of the Florida Bar in 2012-13.

She recalls searching for a job in Tampa in the 1980s and being told that women were better suited for clerical work. She kept looking and found a position at the Carlton Fields firm.

Another trailblazer in the documentary is Judge Mary Scriven, who is one of the few black female lawyers to become a federal judge. She grew up in Tampa and served as a U.S. magistrate for the Middle District of Florida from 1997 until 2008, when she was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida by President George W. Bush.

Others interviewed include former judge and lawyer John Germany; third-generation Tampa lawyer Fraser Himes; and Lanse Scriven, who recalls being one of only a handful of black lawyers working in Tampa in the 1980s. “Today there may be 20 or 30 working at major firms in town, but very few have made partner,” he says.

In recalling the fight for a fair playing field in the 1960s, Stewart wonders how those who claimed to be sincere about justice could work so hard to thwart it. Dawson remembers when lawyers would address white witnesses as “miss” or “mister” but called black witnesses by their names or nicknames, showing a lack of respect.

But all agree that progress has been made and strong friendships have been forged between black and white lawyers.

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