Growing up in segregated Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s, Eugene Pettis was not allowed to use public bathrooms reserved for whites. His mother once told a Burdines clerk, “You have two choices: either let my son use your bathroom or he will pee on the floor.”
As a sixth-grader, Pettis was severely beaten by white teachers shortly after his elementary school was integrated — an incident that left him angry and could have defined his life.
But with the help of his mother and faith, Pettis overcame his emotions and channeled his energy into law school, becoming an accomplished attorney and reaching the pinnacle of his profession.
On Friday, Pettis will make history when he is sworn in as the first black president of The Florida Bar in its 63-year history. In his speech at The Bar’s annual convention, he will recall his humble roots and the racism he encountered in his journey to the top.
“It almost took me down the wrong path,” Pettis said. “My mother always gave me the encouragement, telling me you can do anything in life. She said, ‘There is no one better than you, and you’re no better than anyone else.’ Those are basic words she instilled in me that I carry to this day.”
Pettis, a partner at Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm in Fort Lauderdale, will begin his one-year term at the helm of the second-largest bar group in the country with 96,000 lawyers.
While his beloved mother died last year, she will be remembered in his acceptance speech.
Pettis grew up in a close-knit family, the youngest of seven siblings. His father was a waiter and his mother a maid and later a teacher’s aide. He still attends the church he went to as a child, Mount Olive Baptist Church, in Fort Lauderdale’s historically black Sistrunk neighborhood.
Racism surrounded Pettis as a child of the 1960s growing up in the South. But few know of the incident that occurred when he was in sixth grade. The student body at Sunland Park Elementary School was all black, and the faculty had just been integrated.
Pettis said he was beaten by two white teachers because he ran across the grass one day. Beaten with a strap 100 times, his mother took him to the hospital and he was black and blue for days.
“Now, an incident like that would be on CNN, but it didn’t even make the newspapers back then,” Pettis recalls.
The Broward County School Board conducted an investigation, and the teachers were fired.
Two decades later, Pettis found himself representing the school board as its long-time outside litigation counsel.
After the beating, Pettis was angry and constantly fighting with students. When the principal said he would be suspended if he got into one more fight, something in him changed. His anger vanished, and he became captain of the basketball team at Stranahan High School and prom king. He secured a scholarship to the University of Florida, where he attended undergraduate and law school.
At first, Pettis thought he would follow his brother and become a dentist, but he didn’t enjoy the pre-dental science courses. He tried a political science class and enjoyed it.
“My mom said, ‘You have to be a lawyer, you talk so much,’ ” he laughed.
After passing The Bar exam, Pettis began his legal career at the Fort Lauderdale law firm Conrad Scherer & James, now Conrad & Scherer, where he worked for six years.
Then all-white, the law firm was trying to recruit an African-American and turned to Henry Latimer, then the most prominent African-American lawyer in Fort Lauderdale. Latimer recommended Pettis.
The firm had some reservations about how jurors, then mostly white, would view Pettis, but he quickly proved himself a capable and hard-working litigator, recalled partner William Scherer.
“He comes from a humble background but a good stable family, and his story is the American dream,” Scherer said. “I’m proud we made him the first African-American associate in a major firm and the first African-American partner.”
Pettis left the firm in 1992 with some partners before forming his own civil litigation firm in 1996 with long-time colleague James Halcizer. The firm, which specializes in medical, employment and professional malpractice, now has 16 lawyers.
Public service beckoned Pettis early: Governor Lawton Chiles appointed him to the South Florida Water Management board in 1991. He also served on Broward College’s Foundation board for 17 years. And he’s a notable philanthropist, donating more than $1 million to his alma mater.
Latimer, a former Broward circuit judge and Greenberg Traurig partner, was on course to be the first black president of The Bar. After Latimer died in 2005, Pettis was encouraged to run for his seat on The Bar’s Board of Governors. Lawyers soon began asking Pettis to run for president and “step into Henry’s shoes,” he said.
No ‘Envelope Licker’
Pettis said he had no reservations about making the kind of time commitment necessary to be Florida Bar president.
“I give of my time very heavily anyway,” he said. “I believe that we as lawyers are supposed to give back. In a 50-year career, you can give a couple years back to the profession.”
Wasting no time, Pettis has started several initiatives, including a recruiting campaign to get 500 lawyers — many of them minorities — to serve on Bar committees.
“On diversity and inclusion issues … it’s one thing to talk, it’s another to act,” he noted.
Pettis also was clear that he didn’t want to be pigeonholed on diversity issues. He developed a Leadership Academy, a one-year curriculum to train young lawyers for leadership positions in The Bar and community. The first class of 59 fellows will be introduced at the convention.
He also is launching a three-year study dubbed Vision 2016 on the future of the law. The study will examine four areas: how to strengthen lawyers’ use of technology, how to encourage more pro bono work, how law schools can better equip students for legal careers and whether Florida should pursue reciprocity agreements with other states for automatic Bar admission.
Halcizer said Pettis will not be a mere “envelope licker” during his presidency.
“He’s more of a leader than a follower,” Halcizer said. “I think he attributes some of his success to the community around him, and he wants to give something back. He’s always been very service-oriented, and his heart is in the right place.”