Lawson E. Thomas, the first Black judge in the South since reconstruction, Part 3

Lawson E. Thomas grave monument at Miami City Cemetery. (Kelly Bradley/ SFMN)

Lawson E. Thomas is more than just a name in a courthouse. Lawson was the first Black judge in the South since Reconstruction and an outstanding leader in the civil rights movement. 

Lawson took the bench after being appointed by the city commission in May 1950. He was nominated by Robert. L Floyd, a City of Miami commissioner, to be a municipal judge at the Negro Municipal court.

“Judge Lawson took the reins of justice in the Black community and stood for them,” said Marvin Dunn, a retired professor and historian of the Miami Black community. 

According to an article in The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Thomas fought for Blacks to have the right to serve on local juries and with this action, helped reinforce the promise of the United States Constitution that all defendants have the right to be tried by their peers.

In 1937, Lawson made his first appearance in Miami’s municipal court, where he presented his first case, becoming the first Black attorney to present a case there. 

Lawson was threatened by a bailiff with being thrown out of the sixth-floor window if he didn’t sit with the rest of the Black people. 

“We can take inspiration from his courage and his wiliness to put his life on the line for those who came behind him will have a better opportunity in the legal field,” said Trelvis Randolph, president of the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. Bar Association.

Thomas was a civil rights activist in South Florida who filed a lawsuit that aimed to equalize the salaries of Black and white teachers in Marion and Lake Counties. 

“He went against what was expected from a Black attorney,” said Randolph. “Rather than keep his head down and respect the system, he challenged it.”

In 1945, Thomas led a protest called wade-in over the lack of Black beaches in the county. After a few months, Dade County officials established a Black beach located on Virginia Key. 

According to an article in The Miami Herald, The Baker’s Haulover wade-in was held long  before the national civil rights movement started. 

“One of his greatest achievements as a civil rights leader was the wade-in protest,” said Paul George, Miami-Dade College professor and a Miami historian. 

Judge Thomas died on Sept. 14, 1989, when he was 91 years old. 

In 2000, he was honored with the naming of Lawson E. Thomas Courthouse Center in Downtown.

“It was The Bar Association that made the naming of the courthouse possible,” said Sharmaynne Thomas, daughter of Lawson E. Thomas. 

Lawson is remembered as a strict and honorable judge who dedicated his life to the progress of the Black people. 

“My dad taught me that there was no excuse for bad behavior,” said Thomas. 

This story is part of a series on the City of Miami cemetery.

Kelly Bradley is a broadcast journalism student at Florida International University who hopes to eventually become a newscaster. A native of Venezuela, her goal is to move to New York to pursue her dream.