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Zainabu Rumala, lawyer with Hernando roots, hurdles color barriers

You may have read Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Cynthia Tucker's widely reprinted column calling for the end of Black History Month.

In a "nation of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Barack Obama,'' a special month to recognize African-American achievement is not only unnecessary, she wrote, "it is a damaging form of racial apartheid, setting aside the contributions of blacks as separate and unequal.''

I don't know whether or not she's right. I know one part of her argument especially grabbed me, that we've entered a new era for African-Americans.

So I thought it might be a good time to appreciate the historical significance of the present. I thought that this one Black History Month — coming so soon after Obama's inauguration — could be devoted to celebrating a time when African-Americans can achieve at the very highest level of our society.

Plus, I found such a good local example: Zainabu Rumala.

I noticed the Hernando County NAACP, in a list of "unsung heroes,'' identified her as the University of Florida Law School's youngest graduate.

That, I thought, made her the perfect historic bookend to Hazel Land, the Brooksville resident who became the first black woman to graduate from the UF law school in 1973.

This was a great achievement, of course. But it was an achievement from a time when African-Americans were placed in the context of their race, when their accomplishments of "first'' or "youngest'' were usually followed by the qualifier, "black.''

(As is Obama's election, you could argue, except it made him the first black president of the whole United States.)

Rumala? Turned out she wasn't the youngest graduate ever, not quite the perfect bookend.

She's just an amazing example of what a determined, talented young person can accomplish in a fair society. Because, it seemed, there's no way she could be on a track this fast if racism was slowing her down.

Rumala, the daughter of a social worker and a Nigerian-born engineer, started school a year early, skipped a grade at Hernando Christian Academy, and started taking courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College at age 12.

By 16, she had a high school diploma and an associate's degree. At 18, she received her bachelor's from UF. It was only a year later, after receiving a master's in business administration, that she entered law school. Still, she graduated at the unusually young age of 22.

She was encouraged to achieve by her parents, maybe even pushed a little, she said. But when she realized she was accumulating college credits at an age when most kids were in middle school, she caught the buzz and wanted more.

And, no, she never felt held back. But, growing up in Hernando, she's aware most of her black contemporaries haven't enjoyed that same sensation of doors opening readily through hard work.

"I don't want our society to fall in the trap that racism doesn't exist any more because we have those marked achievements,'' she said.

But remember, she said this from the offices of the Florida Supreme Court, where, at 25, she holds a coveted job as staff attorney to Justice Barbara Pariente.

Just this one month, isn't that worth celebrating?

Zainabu Rumala, lawyer with Hernando roots, hurdles color barriers 02/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 6:46pm]
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