The professional organization known today as the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association started with a few committed black lawyers gathering in 1996 and has grown to represent more than 200 attorneys and law students in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Its quest for better representation in the profession’s ranks, however, remains a work in progress as the group marks its 20th anniversary this week, its founders and directors said.
Members will come together Thursday evening at an Oheka Castle gala in Huntington to celebrate the anniversary and recommit to continue their work and advocacy.
“The 20th anniversary is a very big milestone,” said Maxine Broderick, an attorney in Garden City who serves as the group’s president. “I view Amistad as my close family in a professional sense” and other bar groups “as more of an extended family.”
The association — which enrolls about 250 members, including judges, prosecutors, law professors, practitioners and students — fosters “a supportive environment and we are also about professional development and community service,” she said.
The Amistad association drew its name from a cargo schooner that in 1839 was transporting black slaves. The captives revolted, seized the vessel near Cuba and sought to force its crew to sail back to Africa. They were steered in the wrong direction and landed on Montauk Point in today’s Long Island, according to an account compiled by the National Park Service.
In 1841, the 35 survivors of that revolt were declared free people in a Supreme Court decision seen as a boost to the abolitionist cause.
Group founders saw an apt symbol in that precedent.
Their current leadership vows to continue making the case for a regional court system that better reflects the population by availing itself of the pool of talent of black and other minority attorneys.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates placed the black population at nearly 12 percent in Nassau County and at about 8 percent in Suffolk County as of 2015, adding up to about 293,600 black residents in a five-year average of surveys on Long Island.
However, the representation of people of color among judges and prosecutors falls near the 5 percent mark in both counties, according to the Amistad association’s estimates — with fewer than 10 judges identified as people of color out of about 180 in the 10th Judicial District encompassing criminal, civil, family and surrogate courts in Nassau and Suffolk. About the same level of minority representation is found in each of the Nassau and Suffolk district attorney’s offices, considered a training ground for potential judges, the group says.
Nowhere is the goal of diversity more critical than in criminal courts, said founding member J. Stewart Moore, Amistad’s executive director.
“It’s without a doubt that when you have people who are judging and making decisions on people’s lives that it helps if they understand the people and experiences” of the witnesses and defendants, Moore said.
The group would like to see more jobs going to minority candidates in staff positions throughout the court system as well.
“Litigants don’t want to be the only black person in the room when people are making decisions about their life,” said Victoria Gumbs Moore, Moore’s wife, a principal law clerk in Suffolk family court and the association’s executive board director.
The office of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota did not respond to requests for comment, but Moore said Spota’s office is working on creating a partnership with Amistad.
A prosecutor for Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas issued a statement.
“We have established a working relationship with the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association and we share the goal of recruiting more people of color to our office,” said Kyle Rose-Louder, a deputy executive assistant district attorney. “The challenge remains in identifying attorneys who want to make the commitment to becoming a career prosecutor.”
Phil Solages, an attorney based in Hauppauge who is an association member, said the advocacy push needs to continue and grow beyond government roles for black lawyers.
The group “does important work,” he said, and should aim to “in essence, educate those in the community about the legal profession” while working even “closer with governmental entities and private law firms to help advance minority recruitment.”
Amistad members are thinking ahead about the next generation of “black and brown” lawyers, Moore and others said.
They volunteer their time for a yearly Constitution Day commemoration every September to speak in school districts with large minority populations. Broderick said the outreach serves as a “kind of career day” for students to see that they, too, could one day be part of the legal framework that aims to guarantee liberty and justice for all.