When he was 31, Eurich Z. Griffin became the first Black lawyer to join a white firm in Florida.
“Griffin is not typical of all young lawyers starting their careers in St. Petersburg,” a St. Petersburg Times story reported Nov. 9, 1970. “He has a couple of advantages. He’s a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Law School. His first position as a practicing attorney will be with Earle and Earle, a well-established firm. And he has what some might see as a disadvantage. He is Black.”
At the time, many focused on his race. They missed that Griffin, despite obstacles, was a darn good lawyer.
Griffin, a diabetic, died Sept. 30 of hypoglycemia. He was 82.
Griffin’s parents were told they couldn’t have children. So when he came along, his father worked three jobs to send Griffin to the best military boys’ high school in Washington D.C. He was one of two Black students.
After an unsuccessful try at college and screenwriting, Griffin joined the Air Force, where he worked as a radio operator for four years.
He used the G.I. Bill to attend Howard University, where he graduated with honors with a degree in economics. Griffin planned to become a psychiatrist, but after meeting his wife, Barbara, and starting a family, he figured that career would take too long to begin.
So he turned to the law. Griffin was one of 15 Black students in his class of over 500 at Harvard Law School.
“He was a good student, and he studied a lot,” said Barbara Griffin, “and he was happy to be there.”
He helped found the Harvard Black Law Students Association to encourage the school to hire Black professors, which it did the following year.
After graduation, Griffin and his family moved to St. Petersburg, where his in-laws, C. Bette Wimbish and Ralph Wimbish, were well-known civil rights activists and professionals. He later joined Carlton Fields, where he made partner, again a first.
A brilliant mind
Despite gaining entry into an all-white firm, Griffin faced barriers because he was Black.
“I can’t go the Palma Ceia (Golf and Country Club), or the Tampa Yacht Club, or the University Club or someplace like that on my own to discuss business deals,” he once told the Times. “But I think once you get involved with a firm and you start working with clients, you get regular clients and word gets out...That’s what’s happened to me.”
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In 1994, Griffin was “arguably the most successful African-American lawyer in the bay area,” according to a Times story, and he left the firm “to represent real people with real problems.”
He later practiced at Stewart, Joyner, Jordan-Holmes & Holmes and was among the co-founders of the George Edgecomb Bar Association, named after Hillsborough County’s first Black judge.
“Eurich had the best legal mind of anybody in Hillsborough County,” said friend, former colleague and retired lawyer Del Stewart. “He was brilliant.”
Most people couldn’t match Griffin’s intellect, which led him to impatience, Stewart said, and created problems for him personally. But it never affected him on the job, said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the first Black female lawyer to practice in Hillsborough and Tampa’s first Black female state representative and state senator.
“He could dissect a case and an issue so swiftly and concisely,” she said. “He was born to be a lawyer.”
Her dad didn’t express a lot of feelings, said Jennifer Griffin, but he did cry when Washington’s professional football team lost. He was a lifelong fan. And when she needed him, he always showed up.
He was successful, said Eurich Z. Griffin, III, but relaxed about money. After their parents divorced, Griffin and his dad took years of father-son trips to Senegal, Gambia, Cancun, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Aruba.
“He was the GGTK,” Griffin’s son said, “a great guy to know.”
Fifty years after beginning his career in St. Petersburg, Griffin spoke a bit about that time in a 2020 interview.
“I was treated like, ‘Oh, it’s you. Oh, you’re Black. No one said anything,” he said. “But it wasn’t easy being the first one.”
A memorial service for Eurich Z. Griffin will take place at 4 p.m. on Oct. 30 at the Hillsborough County Bar Association.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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