FLAGLER COUTY, Fla. (September 3, 2022) Merit. There is something about watching people earn their achievements through hard work and dedication that inspires respect.

It’s the earning of one’s way from the bottom to the top, while exhibiting an unrelenting work ethic, and a drive to succeed. And maybe even using the little a chip on the shoulder as a springboard of momentum at just the right moment when it’s needed to finish the job.

Judge Alicia Washington Seventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, serving Unified Family Court in Putnam County.

Truly defining characteristics of success were on full display Monday evening as the law firm of Dwyer & Knight partnered with Evolve Magazine to showcase what has been an historic change taking place over the past two years.

While it’s one that may not have attracted a significant amount of mainstream attention locally, the changes have been barrier breaking achievements for the African-American community.

Seventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida Judge Joan Anthony addresses guests during “A Night of Celebration” at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center on Monday, September 3, 2022.

Gathered to recognize the seating of not one, but two women of color on the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court bench, the “Night of Celebration” held at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center lauded the Honorable Alicia Washington elected in 2020, and the Honorable Joan Anthony, as the first two women to earn the distinction.

A League of Their Own

Keeping her speech short and sweet after an introduction by Adrianna Laforest, president of the Hatchett Bar Association, Washington’s determination to earn her seat on the bench has been a testament to her optimism and tenacity over a number of years.

“What we’re hoping to do here is simply be another bridge of hope, so that when other people feel like they’re not born into the right circumstance or have the right resources, that they can look at us and they can say, hey, if they can do it, we can do it too,” shared Washington.

Adrianna Laforest, President of the Hatchet Bar Association presents a gavel to Seventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida Judge Alicia Washington.

“That’s really what it’s about. So people can see that the hard work that they put in to make change, it’s working,” she said. “Maybe it’s not working at the pace they’d like. I’d be honest with you. I stay amazed that in this country, in 2022, we’re celebrating firsts. I’m always amazed by that. So I don’t … I put more stock in not being the last than being the first.”

With a history in private practice in addition to serving as an assistant State Attorney and Public Defender, Washington has seen the courtroom from nearly every angle, and is putting her expertise to work in the Unified Family Court Division in Putnam County.

Pastor Jearlyn Dennie and Seventh Circuit Judge Alicia Washington. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

“It’s an honor for me to serve. When I look at how things are changing and people that look like me are being more represented, every person’s victory feels like a personal victory,” said Washington, misty-eyed after the ceremony.

Washington’s husband Al Washington, an attorney for Rue and Ziffra and current president of the Flagler Bar Association, agreed.

“You have to see people similar to you on the bench to understand what’s going on and vice versa,” he said after introducing Judge Joan Anthony. “I’m very proud of them.”

Anthony, who came to the U.S. in 1971 from Jamaica, openly spoke about her family’s history and has represented the underserved in the community for three decades before being seated on the bench in January 2021.

Seventh Circuit Judges Joan Anthony and Raul Zambrano. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

Hoping to inspire others to believe in themselves, Anthony urged those willing to dream big and work hard, to never give up, and sets the expectations for those who come before her.

“You know what I like about it? We’re showing people they can do it. That it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you’ve been through, you can make it,” said Anthony.

“Like I said, both of my parents, they couldn’t read or write. And when I say uneducated, I don’t mean a little bit. They couldn’t read or write. I’m blessed and I’m setting the standard,” she said.

Seventh Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

In Distinguished Company

The evening’s events coincided with the first day on the bench for newly installed U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, as noted by the Honorable Hubert Grimes.

“We could not even imagine several years ago this would ever happen, a Black woman on the United States Supreme Court. I would say to you that certainly when the opportunity came for me to be asked to recognize her, I was certainly elated I was asked to do so,” said Grimes.

Flagler Tiger Bay Club members Gary Walsh, President Greg Davis, Jacqueline Sales Davis. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

Guests were presented with a video replay of Justice Jackson’s installation before cohost Marc Dwyer revealed a surprise phone call with Florida Supreme Court Renatha Francis, Florida’s first Jamaican justice, to the audience.

Appointed to the Florida Supreme Court on August 5, 2022 by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Justice Francis was pleased to recognize Washington and Anthony on their milestone achievement.

Dwyer & Knight Law Firm Senior Partner Marc Dwyer. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

“Congratulations on your historic accomplishments of being the first elected African-American judges in the history of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Florida,” said Francis via telephone.

“That is quite an achievement to be proud of and I know, like I’m sure you do, that we stand on the shoulders of African-American women who’ve gone before us. I’m sure that you both will serve with distinction in this very important role. Congratulations again. Very well-deserved.”

Flagler’s History of Making History

Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano, a steadfast presence on the bench with a reputation for fairness, served as master of ceremonies.

Retired Flagler County Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth, Seventh Circuit Judges Alicia Washington and Raul Zambrano. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

His own inspiring story began in Flagler County, and Zambrano, the first Hispanic member of the Seventh Circuit complemented the achievements of Washington and Anthony. He was proud to see a more equitable representation of the region’s residents emerging.

“I was the second circuit judge here in Flagler County, full-time circuit judge, Kim Hammond was the first. This is significant in the extent, you know, we are accomplishing things that seem kind of odd, first two African-American circuit judges in the entire Seventh Circuit, and both of them women,” said Zambrano.

Flagler County Judge Andrea Totten, John Distler, Flagler County Judge Melissa Distler, Seventh Circuit Judge Terence Perkins. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

“Both of them had to do it by way of election which is very difficult to do but it’s a great accomplishment for both of them.”

“You hate to be the only one and for a time I was the only minority on the bench, not that that matters much, but I think that it’s very important for the community to have some representation of what is the face of the community,” he said.

“Both of these women are well-deserved, well-qualified, and will represent the judiciary in the most phenomenal way.”

Meshella Woods and Sybil Dodson-Lucas. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

130 guests RSVP’d for the event before the hurricane, among them Sybil Dodson-Lucas and Meshella Woods. Both were thrilled to see the historic milestones celebrated.

“Today is significant because it says to me, yes, it can be done. I know how hard it is. I know my struggles, I know her struggles, but most importantly, I have three granddaughters and today says to them, you can be whatever you want to be,” said Dodson-Lucas.

“Don’t let anyone who says that’s not for you, you’re aiming too high, that’s out of your ballpark, don’t believe it. Follow your dreams.”

Shelly Edmonson, Howard Holley, Barbara Holley, Teldra Jones, Carl Jones. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

Legacy Lessons

Co-host Marc Dwyer beamed throughout the evening’s program and was even happier to have his daughter by his side to witness history being made.

“We were just so thrilled and excited because Flagler County plays a big role in helping with this historic event and to just now be a part and allow really our county to take a victory lap and just enjoy and celebrate in history, is very gratifying,” said Dwyer.

Marc Dwyer addresses guests as Seventh Judicial Circuit Judges Alicia Washington and Joan Anthony look on. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

“A lot of judges wind up being appointed, working for the state and public lawyers but to know a couple of private lawyers who were out here in the struggle, out here in the streets having to make it and made it. And to see it here in my county, which I love so much. As you know I ran 12 years ago trying to be the first, didn’t quite make it. Now to see that dream realized in these two women is just amazingly gratifying.”

Dwyer was instrumental in closing the gap between the state and federal judiciary, securing Justice Francis for the ceremony.

“That was a big ask but we were very fortunate that Justice Renata Francis is very much about empowerment and she’s historic in her own right. When she said that she had to represent in some capacity, we were just thrilled to be able to get her on the phone,” he said with sincere appreciation.

“When you consider all the levels – the state level, the top state level of the Supreme Court and honoring of course Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson at the federal Supreme Court, it’s a great night.”

The celebration marked the culmination of a series of historic events noted by Evolve publisher Howard Holley and his wife Barbara, who worked with others from the African-American community including Ralph and Agnes Lightfoot to create the event program.

EVOLVE Magazine Publisher Howard Holley addresses guests during “A Night of Celebration”. Photo: FlaglerNewsWeekly

“We picked this day to do this celebration because it’s the first day on the bench for Justice Jackson, the first African-American woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States,” said Holley.

“What an important day, of course. What we also wanted to do was use that opportunity and that occasion to recognize two other historic African-American women who are now seated on the Circuit Seven court here in Flagler, Volusia, Putnam and St. Johns. It’s really a very special day. And then Justice Francis, who was just appointed by the governor to serve as the first Jamaican woman, on the Florida Supreme Court, and then this summer, to have Dr. Mary McLeod-Bethune’s statue be installed in Statuary Hall as the first African-American woman or man, who statue represents one of the fifty states. It’s been such a historic time,” he said.