SBWL Celebrates Black History Month with a Call for Forward Progress

By Christine Monroe

National Black History Month is recognized and celebrated annually in February. In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244  which designated February 1986 as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” The purpose was to “make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity” and “to celebrate the many achievements of African Americans in every field from science and the arts to politics and religion.”[1] Although enacted in 1986, National African American History Month had its origins in 1915 when historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.[2]

This year marks an important moment in history as Vice President Kamala Harris is the first woman, the first Black American and the first South Asian American to become Vice President of the United States. Her success – coined “the first, but not the last” – is a message to women and girls of all diverse backgrounds that our goals are attainable, and that we, too, can shatter the glass-ceiling.

Vice President Harris is no stranger to paving the way. She was the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first South Asian American woman to serve as San Francisco District Attorney (2004-2011) and Attorney General of California (2011-2016).[3] In 2016, she was elected to the U.S. Senate becoming the first Black woman to represent California, and only the second Black woman elected to the Senate.[4]

In addition to Vice President Harris’ accomplishments, we recognize and celebrate all of the Black women who have come before her paving the way in the legal profession. A few of the many firsts in California, include:

Credit: U.S. Senate Historical Office [10]
Annie Coker
Credit: [11]
  • Annie Coker – The first Black woman to become a lawyer in California in 1929.[5]
  • Honorable Vaino Spencer – The first Black woman in California appointed to judgeship as a municipal court judge in Los Angeles in 1961, becoming a Superior Court Judge in 1976. She was appointed to the California Court of Appeal in 1980 as only the second Black woman appointed to that court.[6]
  • Honorable Arleigh Maddox Woods – The first Black woman in the United States to hold office as a Justice on a State Court of Appeal when she was appointed to the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division 4, in 1980.[7]

There is no doubt that 2021 started on a high, from Justice Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, swearing in Vice President Kamala Harris, to the inspiring words of Amanda Gorman, Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. Yet, these triumphs cannot replace the ongoing struggle of people of color for equality in society and the legal profession.

An important step to redressing systemic racism is to understand and create an inclusive community, including the legal profession because having “a diverse legal profession positively impacts the administration of justice, ensures fairness, and promotes the rule of law.”[8] Many organizations have never gathered data on the demographics of their members, hindering the ability to implement goals to become more inclusive.

In 2019, the California State Bar collected voluntary data under a California Attorney Census, and issued its first Report Card on the Diversity of California’s Legal Profession. The State Bar reported, among other things, that “[w]hite attorneys account for nearly 70 percent of California’s active licensed attorney population, while people of color constitute 60 percent of the state’s population” and that while women make up 42 percent of the California’s active licensed attorney population, only 16 percent of those women are people of color.[9]

In continuing our progress, SBWL recently adopted its equity and inclusion statement:

“Santa Barbara Women Lawyers is committed to cultivating and preserving a culture of inclusion, diversity and connectedness. SBWL was founded to address inequality, discrimination and bias toward women and women lawyers. We are committed to the advancement of women of diverse backgrounds in the legal profession and community as a whole. We welcome individual perspectives and experiences to encourage open collaboration to enrich our understanding and respect for each.”

SBWL’s mission to promote equality and serve the interest of women includes women of all diverse backgrounds. We must work together to understand and appreciate the value diverse cultures bring to our community.  SBWL is working in collaboration with Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office and others to improve racial awareness and justice. As part of this work, keep an eye out as SBWL will be sharing the quarterly newsletter from the Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office Racial Justice Committee.

SBWL celebrates and recognizes Black History Month in this moment in time when history is being made. SBWL, again, congratulates a fellow California attorney, Vice President Kamala Harris, on her historic achievement.