She received her undergraduate degree from Florida Agricultural Mechanics University (FAMU). She later returned to FAMU to obtain her Juris Doctorate degree and serve as a professor at its law school. She was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1965.
Ms. Cherry was a woman of many firsts. Before attending FAMU’s law school, she was the first Black woman law student to attend the University of Miami. She was the first Black woman to practice law in Dade County, Florida. She was one of the first nine attorneys who initially served at Legal Services of Greater Miami in 1966. In 1970, she was elected as a state representative, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a legislator for the State of Florida. While in the State House of Representative, she introduced the Equal Rights Amendment, the Martin Luther King, Jr. state holiday and other legislation. She was elected to four terms and served until 1979.
During her lifetime, her other accomplishments included, but were not limited to, chairing both the Minority Affairs Committee for Democratic National Convention and the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1972, serving as legal counsel for the Miami Chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and co-authoring Portraits of Color with Pauline Willis and Ruby Thomas.
Ms. Cherry was also an active member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. and served on numerous boards and organizations. She worked with many to remove the barriers to equal opportunities for women and persons of color.
In February 1979, she died in a car accident in Tallahassee, Florida. Former state governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham delivered her eulogy and called her “a champion for the rights of all people and a voice of reason and concern.” As a result of her lifetime achievements, she was honored posthumously in the State of Florida’s Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986. On June 5, 2008, the FAMU College of Law, in Orlando, Florida, announced the dedication of the Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry, Esquire Lecture Hall, which will be used for classrooms and practices for mock trial competitions.