Groundbreaking Attorney Is EVE Awards Speaker; Martha Barnett Was Just the Second Woman to Lead the American Bar Association

Article excerpt

Byline: Sandy Strickland

Martha Barnett's architect husband was also the architect of her career. Just before he went to Vietnam, he suggested she enroll in law school.

So she did, a decision that led her to the pinnacle of the legal profession. She was the second woman to head the American Bar Association and the first to chair its House of Delegates. As the face of the 400,000-member organization, she traveled thousands of miles across the United States and around the world.

She's consistently named to America's best lawyer lists. She's received numerous honors and awards, served on multiple committees, published articles and championed ethics and public accountability.

Barnett, a Holland & Knight partner based in Tallahassee, is in demand as a speaker and has given at least 15 commencement addresses. She will speak at the Times-Union's EVE Awards luncheon at noon Friday, May 31, at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, 225 E. Coast Line Drive. In a telephone interview, Barnett said she's impressed with the philanthropy of Jacksonville's women, both financially and in intellectual and personal commitment to issues affecting women and girls.

Barnett has done her share of pro bono work, including working with a team from Holland & Knight for two years to negotiate a legislative settlement for survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre. Rosewood was a tiny black hamlet near Cedar Key that was destroyed by an angry white mob looking for a man accused of assaulting a white woman from a neighboring community. At least six blacks and two whites died at Rosewood. More than 70 years later, nine survivors won a financial settlement from the state. Most importantly, Barnett said, the state acknowledged what had happened at Rosewood and apologized for not protecting its residents and their property.

"I realized a personal connection when I saw my father's name on many of the death certificates of the people at Rosewood and on the birth certificates of children who had escaped from Rosewood," Barnett said. Her father was a local physician.

When people ask why their efforts were successful, Barnett cites the "powerful testimony" of such survivors as Minnie Lee Langley, who was 9 at the time and eventually moved to Jacksonville. She and other witnesses had lived under a vow of silence for most of their lives.

Barnett, 65, grew up in Dade City. Her father was a doctor, and she wanted to be one too.

"He was a great role model, and I adored him," she said. "I was a pretty good student and met with my high school guidance counselor. I told her I was going to be a doctor, and she said, aeNo, you are going to be a nurse.' I said, 'No, I am going to be a doctor' and she said, 'Well, Martha, girls aren't doctors.' "

At Tulane University, she loved her math, science and liberal arts classes. But it wasn't her guidance counselor who changed her mind about med school. It was the man she met her first day at Tulane, the man who became her husband. He was in a Marine Corps Platoon Leaders program in college, was commissioned as an officer and sent to Vietnam after graduation. He suggested law school.

"I'm thinking to myself, he might get killed," said Barnett, who graduated from Tulane in three years. She was accepted at the University of Florida law school and loved the academics and intellectual challenge. She saw herself in the role. …