ST. PETERSBURG — Retired Circuit Judge Frank H. White, a quiet leader whose passion for equal justice under the law spurred a legal career, died Wednesday at a rehabilitation center. He was 84.
He was one of the first African-American lawyers in St. Petersburg and the second black judge in Pinellas County's history.
When he stepped down in 1993, he was the only African-American judge serving in the county.
As a soft-spoken young lawyer in solo practice, then in the public defender's office, Judge White literally towered over opposing lawyers, standing nearly 6 feet 8.
"He was a huge man and his heart was just as big," said former Circuit Judge Ray E. Ulmer Jr., who served as an assistant state attorney before a career on the bench. "Once in a while, you would look across at a sentencing when there would be some young fellow going off to prison, and he'd have a big old tear in his eye."
After serving for years as chief assistant in the public defender's office, Judge White won a county judgeship in 1976.
"He had an ideal temperament for a judge," said Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, who practiced before Judge White in her first years as a lawyer. "It was very obvious that he was very alert to what was going on in the courtroom."
Judge White had been breaking color barriers ever since graduating at the top of his class at Florida A&M University College of Law in 1959. He was invited to join the city's first black law firm working with Fred Minnis and I.W. "Ike" Williams, but decided to open a solo practice on 22nd Street S instead.
"He had his own ideas and he just wanted to pursue that," said Kenneth Rogers, 71, Judge White's brother. He was soon joined by James B. Sanderlin, who would go on to become the first black judge in Pinellas County, and Frank Peterman.
In 1961, Judge White and Sanderlin began research for a lawsuit against the Pinellas School Board that eventually banned segregated schools.
The law firm dissolved after several years and Judge White joined the public defender's office, where peers knew him as unflappable and methodical. He defeated two other candidates to win the county judgeship, presiding over minor criminal cases, traffic cases and civil suits.
In 1981, Gov. Bob Graham appointed him to fill a vacant circuit judgeship.
"He appeared to have a tremendous grasp of constitutional law," Tepper said. "As a county judge, it appeared to me in retrospect that his talents were not well utilized, so it was a perfect fit for him to go on to the circuit bench."
However, the stresses of trying criminal cases with lives at stake was bad for his heart. Reluctantly, he requested permanent reassignment to civil cases. He retired in 1993, a year before the end of his term. At the time, he said he hoped another black judge would replace him. But there would be no more black judges until 1995, when Myra Scott McNary was appointed as a Pinellas County Court judge.
Judge White was born in Decatur, Ala., the eldest of seven children. At age 10, his mother, the principal of a black elementary school, took him to a courtroom to watch a famous trial. Nine black youths known as the "Scottsboro boys" had been accused of raping two white girls. Despite the outcome, decried as an example of racial injustice, a young Frank White was enthralled by the cross-examination of an alleged victim by defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz.
"It was a masterpiece," Judge White recalled years later. "He showed that her story wasn't, and could not have been, true."
His family moved to Winter Haven when Judge White was a teenager. He attended Bethune-Cookman College, was drafted into the Army for two years, then finished his undergraduate studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He then married Clearwater native Elaine Carson.
In retirement, he continued a lifelong pursuit of reading and cared for his wife, who by then suffered health problems. Elaine White, his wife of 60 years, died in April.
Judge White also had multiple health problems, including a stroke.
His family is now going through folders containing his notes and some writings, much of which center on racial discrimination.
"He wrote a lot about that," his brother said. "He wanted to challenge some of the longstanding rules and laws that existed that excluded African-Americans from being real citizens."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.