Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington is, by any account, a trailblazer.
She has shattered glass ceilings as the first Hispanic person or female appointed to several distinguished positions, including the first Hispanic person as a U.S. District Court judge in the Middle District of Florida and the first female supervisor in that branch of the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Covington was one of more than 30 local "Hidden Figures," judges and attorneys who have been called trailblazers due to various important "firsts," honored at a luncheon Thursday at the Floridan Palace Hotel. The event was staged by the Historical, Education, and Public Outreach Committee, which is part of the Middle District of Florida Bench Bar Fund.
Hidden Figures, the popular film and book, featured female African-American scientists who broke barriers at NASA.
But according to her, all her success stems from the welcoming environment of her native Tampa.
"I’ve always felt an obligation to give back to the community that did so much for my family," said Covington, whose mother and grandparents left Cuba with nothing in 1953 for a new life in Tampa.
Covington said the people here welcomed her family with open arms, even teaching her mother some English.
Her grandparents rented a room at a place called the Embassy, which would eventually become a dormitory at the University of Tampa, where Covington earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees.
"My grandfather always talked about the pride he felt in being Cuban, and how important it was for me to do well and make our community proud," she said.
Covington was inspired by her mother’s hard work to get into Georgetown, her dream law school, which only made her miss Tampa more.
"The Latin community has so much history here, from Ybor City to the Rough Riders and Jose Marti," she said. "It took my leaving Tampa to realize what a jewel it is."
One person Covington considers a trailblazer is her former boss, Judge E.J. Salcines, who served as the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s first Hispanic State Attorney and whose illustrious career even got him knighted into the Royal Order of Queen Isabella of Spain.
"What E.J. has done for Hispanics in this area and for diversity itself, there’s no rival to him," she said.
Salcines spoke at the luncheon about the lack of diversity in Tampa’s legal community when his career began in 1963, saying, "What diversity? It was a lily white society."
Hillsborough County’s first African-American female lawyer, Arthenia Joyner, echoed Salcines when she said, "All my life I had lived in a segregated world; being discriminated against was par for the course."
Joyner remembered having to go through extra security every time she visited a client in jail, and finally telling the sheriff to alert his staff that there was a black female lawyer that needed to see her clients.
In 1969, Salcines said, black lawyers were banned from monthly Hillsborough County Bar Association luncheons that were held in the same room at the Floridan that hosts the luncheon honoring them nearly 50 years later.
Salcines had been the one to appoint African-American Judge George Edgecomb to the bar, despite threats from his chief judge that doing so would mean the end of Salcines’ career.
"I appointed him anyway, and some years later, that same judge said, you know, that was a good appointment," Salcines said to laughter and applause.
Judge Henry Adams, the first African-American U.S. District Judge in the Middle District of Florida, said he hoped to leave a legacy of equality.
"My mother and grandparents were born here, my great-grandparents lived here, and so I think it was important for me to play a part in the elimination of barriers to racial harmony here," he said.
Covington said it was the support from the Cuban community in Tampa that convinced her to become a judge.
"I wanted to give back to the community here just as it had given to my mother," she said. "What’s kept me here in Tampa is the graciousness that was extended to my family, and I think it’s important to carry on by being a role model."
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her at @LibBaldwin.
The Bench Bar Fund Committee of Tampa’s U.S. District Court honored the following for their trailblazing achievements in the local legal commmunity:
Judge Henry Adams - First African-American U.S. District Judge appointed to the Middle District of Florida (1993)
Prof. Dorothea Beane - First tenured African-American, female law professor at Stetson University College of Law
Pam Bondi - First female Attorney General in Florida
Donna Bucella - First female U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Florida
Judge Susan Bucklew - First female county judge and circuit judge in Hillsborough County
Judge Vivian Corvo - First Hispanic female circuit judge in Hillsborough County
Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington - First Hispanic district court judge in the Middle District of Florida, First Cuban American woman to any one of Florida’s appellate courts, First Cuban American to the Second District District Court of Appeals
Judge Marva Crenshaw - First African-American female circuit judge in Hillsborough County
Warren Dawson - First African-American Assistant City Attorney in the South
Julianne Holt - First female elected public defender in Hillsborough County (Sworn in in 1993)
Judge Miriam Irizarry - First Hispanic female county court judge in Pinellas County
Arthenia Joyner - First Black female lawyer in Hillsborough County, sworn on June 20, 1969
Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich - First female elected circuit judge in Pinellas County
Maria Chapa Lopez - First Hispanic female U.S. Attorney in the Miiddle District of Florida
Judge Mac McCoy - First openly gay person to be swron in as federal judge in the M.D. of Fla. (2015)
Judge Catherine McEwen - First female appointed U.S. bankruptcy judge in Tampa
Prof. Luz Nagle - First tenured Hispanic law professor at Stetson University College of Law (2004)
Eugene Pettis - First African-American President of The Florida Bar
Justice Peggy Quince - First African-Amercian woman to lead a branch of government, serving as Chief Justice (2008), First African-American woman appointed to the Florida Supreme Court (1998), First African-American woman appointed to a Florida District Court of Appeal (1993)
Marsha Rydberg - First female president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association
E.J. Salcines - First Hispanic State Attorney in Florida
Lanse Scriven - First African-American President of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, First African-American member of The Florida Bar Board of Governors from Hillsborough County
Judge Mary Scriven - First African-American female federal judge in Florida
Carolyn House Stewart - First African-American female assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County, First African-American female hired by a Fortune 500 in Tampa (Jim Walter Corp, 1978), First African–American female from Hillsborough appointed to The Fla Board of Bar Examiners
Delano Stewart - First African-American Assistant Public Defender, 13th Judicial Circuit (1966)
Susan Johnson Velez - First African-American female President of HCBA (2013 - 2014)
Judge Charles Wilson - First African-American in Tampa Bay appointed to the Eleventh Circuit
Gwynne Young - First female assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County.