Gwen Cherry

By Janet Scherberger

Law/politics, state lawmaker (Miami)

Years: 1923–1979

Remembered for:

Gwen Cherry was the first Black woman elected to Florida’s House of Representatives. During her time in office, she introduced the Equal Rights Amendment legislation and legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday. In a 1974 interview, she said: “I have my priorities in my order, and my black priorities came first and women second. … When you are talking about people’s rights, if you are going to fight for one set of rights, you’ve got to fight for the other, it doesn’t make sense if you don’t.”

Florida A&M University, where she earned a law degree and taught for 20 years, dedicated a lecture hall in her name. A Miami/Dade County Park named for her dedicates itself to educating children and helping at-risk youth. She died in a car accident in Tallahassee in 1979.

Why you should know her:

Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry was born in Miami in 1923. She worked as a math teacher at Miami Northwestern Senior High School before becoming a lawyer, and was one of nine initial attorneys working for Legal Services of Greater Miami. She served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1970 to 1979.

Cherry logged a number of firsts. She was the first Black woman to practice law in Dade County, and the first Black woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives. In 1972, she chaired the Minority Affairs Committee for the Democratic National Convention and the National Women’s Political Caucus while serving as legal counsel for the Miami chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also co-authored Portraits in Color: The Lives of Colorful Negro Women with Paulie Willis and Ruby Thomas. The book profiles 55 women who overcame racial barriers to achieve great acclaim.

Featured imageGwen Cherry