Gator Nation News

His Father’s Footsteps

Orlando attorney Paul C. Perkins Jr. touches on his UF roots, his father’s enduring legacy and how each one of us can help close the racial divide.

In addition to the lifetime of legal aid Paul C. Perkins Jr. (JD ’91) has given to his Orlando community, he has donated $25K to the Levin College of Law for a scholarship that will support law students who earned their bachelor’s degrees from historically Black colleges and universities.

Growing up in 1960s segregated Orlando – the area where Parramore, Pine Hills and Carver Shores neighborhoods stand today – Paul Perkins Jr. (JD ’91) had a unique view of the world as compared to other young men in his community. After all, his father and namesake was a local attorney whose legal prowess was so well known that the late Thurgood Marshall once asked for his partnership on a landmark civil rights case called the Groveland Four.

Perkins later followed his father’s example and became an attorney who also practices in his hometown, Maitland. Perkins recently took some time to talk about his love for the Gators, his profession, his community and his recent UF project that can help bridge the racial divide with your help.

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Describe yourself in just a few words.
An advocate for those who feel they have no voice. A Gator. A son to two phenomenal parents, husband to an amazing woman and a father to bright kids.
What was life like for you growing up in Orlando?
My dad was 49 when I was born in 1966. He was a solo practitioner serving our African American community by doing everything: wills, criminal cases, civil cases. He started a bank, the oldest African American savings and loan in Florida, and started a recreational center, Washington Shores. I had a big brother. Everyone knew who I was since I looked just like [my dad]. I had a pretty privileged life. We lived in an all-Black neighborhood, but I went to Trinity Prep for grades 6 through 12. I was one of 14 Black guys on campus. We didn’t lock our doors back then. As far as racial strife, I didn’t experience that.

Paul C. Perkins Jr. (on his mother’s lap) says even as a child, members of his Orlando community knew him, in part, because he looks so much like his late father, Paul Perkins Sr.

Why UF?
I went to Morehouse College for my bachelor’s: political science with a minor in history. My older brother went there, too. In the Atlanta university center area, there were about 12,000 Black students. It was a mecca. I was talking to a guy at Emory Law – a classic Southern guy – about going there. He said if I were to stay in Atlanta, I should go to Emory. But if I planned to go back home, I should go to UF. My dad died the summer after my freshman year. I never saw him get sick – cancer. I came home in May, and he died in July. Then I received the Virgil Hawkins scholarship at UF’s law school, which made my decision easy.
Describe your UF experience.
Back then all Black law students started during the summer because the college had a problem with Blacks leaving after the first year. They brought us together and gave us the rudimentary stuff about law to prepare us for other courses. It was also an incredible social experience to meet each other. Everyone did fine. Intramurals for guys were phenomenal. I had a great time socially and had diverse friends on campus.
Today, Paul C. Perkins says he’s most proud of his family: wife, Andrea, and their children. Photo courtesy Paul Perkins Jr.
Why do you advocate for historically Black colleges and universities?
Getting to know other students in college is all about walking a mile in their shoes. At Morehouse, I was like a white person in the sense that everybody was like me. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) nurture young Black people, and you come out really confident and better prepared for the challenge of graduate school. I noticed my friends who went to primarily white institutions (PWIs) didn’t have that confidence. But also, I had been to Trinity Prep where I was comfortable being one of only a few Blacks.
After graduation, did the Gator Nation network help you land good jobs?
Yes, my first job experience was a summer clerkship. You forget how immature and how little knowledge you have about the way the world works. Every lawyer whom I knew up to that point was a sole practitioner. At UF, I was exposed to summer clerkships. Then I went to a place where the Black Bar Association was named after my father. I’m sure it didn’t hurt being a Gator, but I had name recognition. I had my foot in the door in Orlando already.
What inspired you to help create the UF law scholarship for HBCU graduates?
Yolanda Cash Jackson (BSJ ’80, JD ’90) came up with the idea for the scholarship. It’s a brilliant idea. It’s much easier to go to HBCUs and talk to their top 10% of students than it is to go to PWIs and say, “I want to talk only to your Black students.” Education is huge – really important to me. So when I heard about Yolanda’s deal and how she’s pledging $25,000, I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” Education is my deal. It's the kind of philanthropy that fits my way of thinking.
Why is it important to encourage more young Black people to pursue law?
For anyone who is serious about equality in America, education is one of the most important things, period, that contributes to leveling the playing field. Then when you think about the problems with the criminal justice system, having more Black lawyers and Black judges involved is part of the solution. Florida has the third-highest African-American population in the country (California is first, then Texas). Job opportunities for Blacks are better here than other areas of the country, yet our state has very few Black lawyers.

Perkins’ father, Paul Perkins Sr. (center), was best known for defending Walter Irvin (right) and Samuel Shepherd in 1951 as part of the Groveland Four case. His co-counsel on the case was Thurgood Marshall (left).

What do you want the scholarship to do for recipients?
Provide an opportunity for African Americans to get a law degree and serve their communities and the greater community through their positions from prosecutors to defenders to judges.
What makes you successful?
I have figured out how to use my strengths in my everyday life. I enjoy looking at a difficult case and trying it. I like it when a client appreciates the hard work we’ve done. I’m one of those people who found out what he wanted to do with his life, and I get to get up and do it every day. We’re the only ones who are listening to them. They expect us to give them a voice.
What’s the greatest compliment someone could give you?
That I’m like my father. It’s who I’ve been trying to be for a long time. He did serious things without taking himself too seriously. He was an elite lawyer without ever being elitist. He used common sense to make an uncommon impact. I try to do the same.

What is the Groveland Four Case?

In 1949, four young Black men – Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Earnest Thomas – were arrested on suspicion of raping a 17-year-old white woman and assaulting her husband in Groveland (Lake County).

Thomas fled and was shot 400 times by a sheriff’s posse as he slept under a tree. The others were beaten and later convicted by an all-white jury. Greenlee, then-16 years old, received a life sentence. The other two received the death penalty.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a retrial for Irvin and Shepherd, Paul Perkins Sr. and Thurgood Marshall led the men’s defense. However, the Lake County sheriff shot Irvin and Shepherd on the way to that trial, claiming they tried to escape. Irvin survived and told FBI investigators that he and Shepherd had been shot in cold blood. Florida NAACP leader Harry T. Moore demanded the sheriff’s suspension, but the following month a bomb under Moore’s house exploded, fatally wounding Moore and his wife.

Irvin was ultimately convicted by another all-white jury and again sentenced to death. The next Florida governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. Irvin was paroled in 1968, but died in 1969, reportedly of natural causes. Greenlee remained in prison until 1962. He died in 2012.

In 2016, Groveland and Lake County leaders apologized to the Black men’s survivors. Gov. Ron DeSantis posthumously pardoned them in 2019, but relatives continue to demand complete exoneration.