This appeared in the Wall Street Journal. What follows is the letter I sent in reply.
Wall Street Journal
APRIL 2, 2010
How About Those Tomato Sandwiches . . .
What does a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court do when she's mistaken for the restroom attendant?
By LEAH WARD SEARS
Every March, I am invited to give a fair number of speeches in honor of Women's History Month. Having served as the country's first African-American female chief justice, I suppose one can say that I now own a slice of history. What strikes many people as particularly noteworthy is that I earned my stripes in Georgia, the deep South.
These speeches always force me to think of my own journey, sandwiched somewhere between how far women have come and how far we still have to go. The road for black women remains especially long.
I think back to the time when I was 23 years old and fresh out of law school. To celebrate the merger of my prestigious law firm with another, I attended a luncheon at an old private club in Atlanta. I was the only woman of color in the sea of lawyers present, and I felt like I had finally made it.
During the lunch I excused myself and went to the ladies' room. As I was leaving, another much older white woman tried to hand me her hat assuming, I guess, that I was the restroom attendant.
Growing up in Georgia, I've learned that the Southern way to handle such gaffes is to act as though they never happened, to jump to the subject of tomato sandwiches or the like. And that's just what I did. "I'm a lawyer; I'm having lunch here," I murmured. And without uttering another word, the lady handed her hat to the other black woman in the room—the one who was actually the attendant.
I'd like to think that scene wouldn't happen today, that times have changed. But a decade later I was at the Cloisters at Sea Island attending a swanky cocktail party. This time I was a Georgia Supreme Court justice. An older woman approached me. "The next time I want you to make sure you put more ice in my drink," she said, mistaking me for the cocktail waitress. I collected myself and said, "I'm Justice Sears," emphasizing the title, "the server is over there." And then, more talk of tomato sandwiches.
Something similar happened just two years ago, after I had become chief justice. I was walking with my children at yet another resort on the coast when a lady pulled over and hollered, "Hey girl, where's the spa?" Stunned, I directed her to the wellness facility, but this time I was seething with anger because my children were embarrassed.
I, like many women, tend to turn on myself when such faux pas occur. "Was I laughing so loudly she assumed I was the help?" I've asked myself. "Were my clothes too loud or cheap looking?" I've pondered.
I recently stepped down from the Supreme Court after 17 years to re-enter private practice, and many people are confused about how to address me. To be honest, I'm very fond of my first name. And perhaps if everything was right in the world, calling me Leah would be just fine. But I tend to ask people to call me Chief Justice Sears or Justice Sears because it's the same courtesy they automatically afford a retired male jurist, particularly down South. For instance, it was always "Judge Bell," even long after the U.S. attorney and former judge retired, never "Griffin." When I retired many people were suddenly confused. Why?
When gender and race-based—with me, it's impossible to separate the two—slights have occurred over the course of my career, I've always tried to remember the words of my friend Jean Young, an accomplished educator and the late wife of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. "You have to forgive and forgive and forgive," she always said, "and then you have to forgive again. Otherwise it will destroy you."
Tomato sandwiches? It may sound trite, but it works. Especially when I consider the many women—and men too—black and white, who endured their own indignities and even harm so I could go to any college I wanted and pursue any profession I chose.
Ms. Ward Sears is a retired chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and a partner at Schiff Hardin LLP in Atlanta. She also serves as a fellow in family law at the Institute for American Values and is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.
Justice Sears’s experiences are in stark contrast with what I have experienced. I was the University of Georgia’s first black freshman – admitted in 1962. After graduating in 1966 I earned a Phd from Ohio State. I have served on the faculties of the University of Florida, Howard University, the University of North Carolina and for the past 23 years, the University of Tennessee. I have served on boards that met in Old South country clubs, attended conferences where I was the only black person not wearing a white coat or carrying a mop. However, I have not once been treated as if I were help. So Justice Sears’ experience says volumes about being a black female in the deep south. The only experience I can point to happens to me regardless of the era. Often strange white women at my universities have either not gotten on a elevator with me or exited when I get on, even if it were not their floor.
Harold A. Black
James F. Smith, Jr. Professor
Department of Finance
University of Tennessee
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