Henry Frye. James Wynn. G.K. Butterfield. Patricia Timmons-Goodson. Cheri Beasley. Michael Morgan.
That is a complete and accurate list of every black man and woman who has ever served as a justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
Nearly six months ago, during a ceremony at the Law and Justice Building in Raleigh, the justices and former justices were recognized for their invaluable contributions to the state’s highest court. But arguably, there is no time more appropriate than Black History Month in February to highlight the scattering of African-Americans who, in the court’s 200-year history, have ascended to North Carolina’s highest judicial post.
From Frye’s 1983 appointment to Morgan’s 2017 election, only six. And two of those, Morgan and Beasley, who assumed office in 2012, serve currently.
Beasley was appointed by then-Gov. Beverly Perdue to fill the vacancy created when Timmons-Goodson retired.
During the ceremony, lawyers and politicians and citizens sat — standing ovations excepted — and paid tribute to the history-makers.
Everyone, including the other justices, paid tribute to Frye, who was not only the state’s first black associate justice, but its first black chief justice.
Educated but not good enough
Frye decided to become a lawyer when, in 1956, he returned home to Richmond County and was told that he could not vote. After graduating with honors from North Carolina A&T and serving overseas as an Air Force officer, Frye wasn’t allowed to register because he “failed” a purported “literacy test.”
Perplexing, really, when one considers that he was more educated than most of his fellow Americans.
Was the test flawed? Sadly, no. The Jim Crow-inspired quiz, selectively administered with subjective pass/fail standards and sometimes unanswerable questions, did exactly what it was designed to do — keep black people out of the voting booth.
Frye went on not only to gain his right to vote, but to graduate from the University of North Carolina School of Law, to become one of the first African-Americans appointed as a federal prosecutor in the South, and to become the first black state representative elected in the 20th century.
In the years since Frye, college-educated and plenty literate, was denied his right to vote, there has been progress. Rather than turning away from that Ellerbe registration table and assuming what some in white America deemed his rightful place, Frye began his lifelong quest for justice for all.
During a 2016 interview with Duke University, Frye recounted a talk he had with another military officer while serving in Japan or Korea. The pair discussed public service after Frye learned that the other officer volunteered much of his free time teaching others to read and write. A seed was planted.
“If you are fortunate enough to have some ability and to do well, you owe it to your fellow man to give something back to others,” Frye said. “I have stayed with that most of my life.”
Proud to be part of the courthouse celebration, Frye said that the fight for “positive change,” in North Carolina and beyond, has to continue.
“Progress in human nature does not occur simply by the change in weather. It does not change … by osmosis,” Frye said. “Positive change occurs when somebody says, ‘The status quo is not quite where it should be; let’s elevate things, let’s do something.’”
Equal justice requires equal access
District Judge Herbert Richardson opened the ceremony by offering that if the public is to have equal access to justice, it has to have equal access to the bench.
“You cannot find justice if you cannot find your people,” Richardson said.
Morgan, the most recently elected justice, told Lawyers Weekly in a recent interview that he agrees completely, and that the public has to have confidence not only in the actual administration of justice, but in the appearance of justice. The current makeup of the bench — two African-Americans and three women (including Beasley) — helps the court to resemble the state’s populace, he said.
“As [citizens] see the court in its physical form … not only do they feel the highest court is equipped to administer justice, but there is an intrinsic level of satisfaction that the court is positioned, because of its diversity, to administer justice, as well,” Morgan said.
It’s not a complex notion that if we are able to honor every African-American justice who has ever served on the state’s highest tribunal, as they are seated together in a single row of chairs, there have been years — decades — of underrepresentation.
Morgan was honored and humbled by the ceremony, he said, calling the experience both “exhilarating” and “sobering.”
“It was exhilarating in the sense that it was a celebration of the African-American presence on the Supreme Court of North Carolina and a recognition of the significant contributions that have been made by those fortunate to be on this high court,” he said. “It was sobering because we did all recognize that all of us are within a generation of one another relative to the generations upon generations upon generations that have come and gone during the existence of this court.”
It took 165 years for an African-American to find his way to the bench, so, now that there is some semblance of racial balance and perspective on the high court, how do we ensure its longevity? Morgan believes it’s a matter of exposing the legal profession to all of North Carolina’s people, especially those who might be steered in other directions.
For instance, the justices are is doing their part to spread civic education by, among other means, venturing into the school systems and speaking with students. In conjunction with the court’s 200th anniversary, the court will be holding sessions across the state later this year.
“We need to make sure that fundamentally we have opportunities for young people within their respective schools … to understand that these judicial roles are available,” he said. “That is a way to make sure we keep the pipeline stocked with good talent.”
It’s also notable that not only are there two African-Americans on the bench currently, but both of them are serving full terms.
“That means that we are in a position to not only have the input of being here on the bench, but that we can have a sustained presence on the bench to be able to add that diversity of perspective,” Morgan said.
‘Judicial diversity matters’
Former Justice James Wynn, who has served as a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge since 2010, served a short stint with the state Supreme Court in 1998 between two terms, totaling nearly 20 years, with the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Former Justice G.K. Butterfield, who served as a Supreme Court Justice from 2001-2002, has presided over criminal and civil court in 46 counties as a superior court judge, and has spent the last 14 years serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from North Carolina’s First Congressional District.
To see African-Americans serving on all levels of the judiciary, Butterfield said, makes him proud.
“Never forget that judicial diversity matters,” he said. “We must have capable judges and justices who can fairly apply the law. We must have jurists who reflect the diversity of civil society — that is imperative.”
Timmons-Goodson sat on the high court from 2006-2012. She also served as a district court judge and on the state Court of Appeals. Currently, she serves as vice chair on the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
When Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Frye as the first black justice, she said, it was the right thing to do because Frye’s presence created “a richer North Carolina jurisprudence reflecting a broader range of experience and perspectives.”
“It was the right thing to do because the confidence and trust in the formerly segregated institution was enhanced when the community previously excluded saw one of its own involved … it contradicted harmful, racial stereotypes,” Timmons-Goodson said. “It was the right thing to do because after 184 years, it was time to add to the court the perspective and the experience of one-fourth of North Carolina’s citizens.”
Before Beasley was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2012, and elected to a full term in 2014, she worked as a public defender and served on the Court of Appeals and as a district judge. Beasley said that she and the other black justices benefitted from the “noble course” charted by Frye.
“In times like these when the state and the nation wrestle with issues often marred by racial tension, we must be mindful that it is important for the makeup of the courts to be reflective of the diverse makeup of the state’s people,” she said.
‘Tragedy into triumph’
For Morgan, Frye’s decision to fight the injustice he saw and experienced, and to do so in a productive manner, was all-important.
“To have him to be propelled to get into the law and to make a difference, and to ensure that justice was done by dedicating his life to that field, speaks volumes about how we as African-Americans have turned that tragedy into triumph,” he said.
Said Hunt, who opened the evening’s remarks, “When we don’t rock the boat, we stop moving forward. Keep rocking the boat until North Carolina is all that it could be, all that it would be, all that it should be.”
Frye told those who attended the ceremony, and who watched its live stream from other locations, that he believed that they were there because they wanted to hear someone say what is possible and to detail how to effect positive change. They shouldn’t believe the naysayers, he said.
“We’re going to decide to do something even better, we’re going to work together,” he said. “We’re going to make North Carolina live up to its motto, “To be, rather than to seem.’”
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher