By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Metropolitan Black Bar Association and its Foundation for Judicial Friends hosted the 32rd annual Rivers, Toney and Watson Awards Dinner and Dance on Nov. 21 at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. Brooklyn’s judges, lawyers and its legal community — along with those from the surrounding boroughs — came to support and celebrate the organization, the event’s purpose and the evening’s honorees.
“Tonight is an exceptional evening,” said Antonio I. Brandveen, president of the foundation. Named for Francis E. Rivers, Charles E. Toney and James S. Watson, the first three black judges elected to the bench in New York City, the awards dinner and dance is like a “taking a tour down memory lane,” Brandveen noted.
Ethel Griffin, the evening’s first honoree, was named New York County’s public administrator in 1988, making her the longest-running official to hold that position. “It is such an honor to have my name next to these wonderful individuals,” said Terri Austin, vice president of diversity and inclusion at the McGraw-Hill companies. “It is my duty and privilege to give as much as I can. I am relentlessly fighting battles in corporate America for the inclusion of all people around the world,” Austin said in her award acceptance speech.
Hon. Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City Courts and the mistress of ceremonies, was elated to introduce Alfredia B. Kenny, “a lawyer’s lawyer.” Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, at a time when segregation was in full force, Kenny decided at the age of 5 to enter the legal profession to help those that she saw “having their property taken from them simply because they did not understand the law.” Kenny experienced discrimination along her journey to become an attorney, but credits her “parents and Southern upbringing” for giving her the “strength to persevere.”
Manhattan attorney and award recipient Kenneth Standard also experienced segregated schools growing up in Brooklyn. “I went to a segregated school in Bed-Stuy before testing and being accepted to a specialized school,” Standard said of his educational beginnings.
“I know how important it is that our bench and our profession is diversified,” noted Hon. Jenny Rivera, associate justice on the New York State Court of Appeals. The second Latina to sit on New York’s highest court, Rivera expressed “how pleased I am that I can stand shoulder to shoulder with this organization.”
The most recent appointee to the New York State Court of Appeals, Hon. Shelia Abdus-Salaam, the first African-American woman to hold that position, was also honored. “What’s remarkable is not that she is the first African-American woman to be appointed to the New York State Court of Appeals,” said Fisher. “But that she remained Shelia.”
“I may be the first African-American women on the bench,” Abdus-Salaam noted, “but I stand on the shoulders of African-American men.” One of these pioneering men is Herman Denny Farrell, who stated that he “could not not be here.”
One of the few judicial appointments by President Barack Obama to be confirmed by a United States Senate, Hon. Raymond J. Lohier, justice for U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, became the fifth black judge appointed to the federal appeals court bench. “I fear I am here as the token federal judge,” Lohier joked. “But thrilled to be here nonetheless because of the importance of strengthening the bonds of state and federal judges of color.”
“The aim of the [MBBA] is to get blacks in the [legal] profession…our work is far from done,” Austin noted. “We should all commit ourselves to do more,” Lohier concluded.