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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Black (Women's) History Month

This month, February, is Black History Month, and March will be Women’s History Month. I don’t want to get into justification for their existence, except to say that I hope the day will come when we don’t need them. Although it would seem that the numerical majority of Americans would be axiomatically included in the teaching of their history, that has not been the case. We still need a deliberate focus on many facts that were omitted from our American story.

Black women, of course, can fall into either month or both or neither. Sometimes they get coverage in February, but more often it is black men who are featured – and in March, it’s far more likely that white women garner attention. In fact, I think that when the media says “women,” the mental picture that emerges for most of us is of white women, with black ones as an afterthought. It’s the same for Hispanic women, Asian women, gay women, older women, or whatever. It’s the adjective that matters most.

This is particularly true of politics, where longtime racial discrimination meant that it was white women who created the first electoral precedents. In honor of Black History Month, Ruth’s List therefore wants to highlight some facts about black women in politics. I’m willing to bet 100-1 that you never learned these things in school.

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Ever think about the first black female state legislator? You may know, from publicity at the 1994 centennial, that the first white women – three of them from minor parties -- were elected to the Colorado House in 1894. It takes a lot more research, though, to come up with the first black woman.

She had the lovely name of Crystal Bird Fauset and was elected in Philadelphia in 1938. A social worker employed by the YWCA and the American Friends Service Committee, Quaker women encouraged her to run – and they innovatively created one of the first political phone banks on her behalf. After a bitter Democratic primary, she won the general election in a district that was two-thirds white.

Forty-four years had passed since Colorado’s first white female legislators in 1894, and that pattern of about a half-century would hold true for most precedents. Their dates, however, varied widely by state, as had been the case with the right to vote. Wyoming women began voting in 1869, while Florida women, like those in most eastern states, did not vote until 1920.

Other states elected women to their legislatures soon after women were eligible to vote, but Florida was third from the last to do so: only Louisiana, South Carolina, and the Alaska Territory were slower than we were. Our first white woman was Edna Giles Fuller of Orlando, elected in 1928. The nearly half-century pattern prevailed again, as our first black woman was not until 1970.

She was Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry of Miami. The Sawyer family long played a leading role in Miami: Gwen’s father was Dade County’s first black physician and her mother operated a popular, if segregated, hotel. They sent their daughter to New York for better educational opportunity, but she came back to graduate from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical College, now FAMU. That was in 1946, when it was the only public college in the state that was open to blacks.

Her degree was in chemistry and biology, and like any black Floridian at the time who sought graduate education, she had to go north for her master’s degree. She earned it from New York University in 1950, and after teaching science at Miami’s Northwestern Senior High School, entered law school at the University of Miami. She was the first African American of either gender there, but her law degree ultimately was from Florida A&M, where she graduated at the top of her 1965 class.

The second black woman admitted to the Florida Bar, Gwen Sawyer married James L. Cherry, and both were active in Dade County politics during this era of civil rights turmoil. That activism and her record as a teacher led to her 1970 electoral victory.

A strong feminist, Cherry led all of the era’s major reforms in Tallahassee and was the first legislator of any race to sponsor ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Her time in the House was relatively brief, however, as she died in a Tallahassee car accident in 1979. In his eulogy, Governor Bob Graham called Gwen Cherry “a champion for the rights of all people, and a voice of reason and concern.”

* * *

Jacksonville also was a leading center for civil rights in the 1960s, and voters there sent the second African-American woman to Tallahassee. She was Mary Singleton, and her political career began on Jacksonville City Council, where she was elected vice president in 1967 – appreciably earlier, for both white and black women, than in most cities.

Carrie Meek became the third woman elected to the Florida House in 1979, when she won a special election to replace Gwen Cherry. I hope to write more about Carrie later, when we look at black women in state senates, in statewide elective offices, and Congress. For now, though, suffice it to point out that she still is alive -- as is Miami’s Athalie Range, a black woman elected to the Dade County Commission in 1964. We are so fortunate to still have a chance to learn from their hard struggles! Today’s Ruth List members face no problems at all compared to what they went through.

The 1980s and the “Reagan Revolution” were a definite step backwards for women, but Corrine Brown of Jacksonville managed to win election in 1982. I had helped Corrine catch cabs at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York City and was so happy when she became the fourth black woman in the House. Like Carrie Meek, Corrine had a background in education, and both women went on to Congress. Representative Brown, however, currently is the only black female member of our delegation – until (I hope!) Val Demmings of Orlando joins her this fall.

But the 1980s were not nearly as good for women as the 1970s had been, and no new black women joined the House in the 1984 or 1986 elections. Although Jacksonville chose Betty Holzendorf in special election early in 1988, that year’s general election was the absolute nadir for Florida women of all races. Not a single non-incumbent woman of either party was elected that year. It is not coincidental that this correlated with the rise of the Florida Republican Party.

The 1990s – and the election of President Bill Clinton – revitalized black women, and four new ones became state representatives that decade. The most notable was the first outside of the Miami and Jacksonville areas, as the university town of Gainesville promoted Cynthia Chesnut from mayor to the Florida House.

From Gwen Cherry in 1970 on to today, a total of 24 black women have been elected to the Florida House. Ruth’s List is particularly proud to have been involved in victories for several current ones, including Betty Reed (Tampa), Cynthia Safford (Miami), Geraldine Thompson (Jacksonville), and especially Barbara Watson (Miami), who won an extremely close special election in 2012.

But here’s the real point. Of those two-dozen black women, just one was a Republican. That was in 2000, when Jacksonville voters elected Jennifer Carroll. We all know how that turned out.

This article was written for Ruth’s List, the Florida affiliate of EMILY’s List. See www.RuthsListFl.org.
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