When Florida’s first Black judge was removed from office for marrying an interracial couple

Mildred Europa Taylor October 04, 2022
Photo: Public domain

You probably know about the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia in which Virginia couple Richard and Mildred Loving, who married in Washington, D.C., in 1958, were arrested in their home for having violated the state’s ban on interracial marriage. The couple were forced to move away or be jailed and spent years fighting the racist law that affected them until the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it.

Before this case was decided on June 12, 1967, black-white romantic relationships were seen as illegal and a social taboo. Couples of mixed race, mainly black and white, were not permitted to have a relationship or get married. Many in such situations were forced to have secret relationships or call it quits depending on the level of their situation. Laws were passed against interracial marriage.

In 1889, the first Black judge elected in the South after Reconstruction, James Dean, was wrongly removed from his office based on charges he had married a Black woman and a White man. Some sources state that the groom referred to himself as a mulatto. Dean fought his removal from the Monroe County bench but was not successful. He died a pauper.

Curiously, Dean had graduated number one in his law class at Howard University in 1884. Born in Ocala in 1858, Dean was among the first Blacks to practice law in Florida. He was described by the Globe in 1884 as “courteous and thoroughly posted in parliamentary law”.

Dean was a Republican in Democratic Monroe County, and he had to run against two whites before winning the election in 1888 to become the first Black judge elected in the South after Reconstruction. But not everyone in Key West was enthused about his victory because of the color of his skin. With segregation rife, some newspapers wrote that many white people would leave Key West since they wouldn’t want to receive a marriage license from a Black judge.

Dean went about his duties as a judge but in less than a year, he was banned from the bench after accusations he had issued a marriage license to an interracial couple. Gov. Francis P. Fleming issued an executive order suspending Dean for malfeasance and replaced him with Angel De Lono, who was the first Hispanic judge elected in the Keys.

Dean sued De Lono and fought against his removal from office before the U.S. Supreme Court on September 13, 1891. He failed to win and left Key West for Jacksonville where he died a poor man at age 59 in 1914. The sheriff even had to auction his law books to settle his estate.

It is significant to note that Dean never had the required Senate hearing to remove him from office. Key West lawyer Calvin Allen used that to get Dean finally reinstated in 2002, 113 years after he was removed from office.

Allen had learned about the story of Dean from his law professor at Howard University and was bent on getting justice for him. He later read an article in the Miami Herald that mentioned a judge who had died in 1924 and was described as the first judge elected since Reconstruction in the South.

Allen was upset, knowing that Dean was actually the first judge. So he sought to right the wrong. And after research, he found out that Dean was denied the required Senate hearing to remove him from office, and that was against the law.

“I felt that would strengthen our position to have him reinstated. The law is the law, and he should be reinstated as a matter of right,” Allen was quoted by The Florida Bar.

On February 26, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a proclamation to posthumously reinstate Dean to the bench.

“It was pretty clear that Judge James Dean was unjustly removed from office in 1889. It was a different space and time in our state’s history. But irrespective of how long it’s taken to right this wrong, it is more than appropriate to do so,” Gov. Bush said.

“He was accused of marrying a man and a woman, and the accusation was they weren’t from the same race. The fact is that they were,” Gov. Bush continued. “The fact is he was removed inappropriately because the Senate did not act on it.

“The fact is, who cares, to be honest with you, in this day and age? This is a gentleman who served with distinction as a judge, and now by this proclamation we will allow his memory to be one we can be proud of.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 4, 2022


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