Review of Henry Frye: North Carolina's First African-American Chief Justice
By John Boschini L'15
As the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” Speech turns America’s attention back to the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, a new biography focuses on one of the central figures in North Carolina’s lurching, uneven emergence from the dark days of segregation. Howard E. Covington, Jr.’s fascinating book, Henry Frye: North Carolina’s First African American Chief Justice chronicles the life and accomplishments of one of the state’s most important pioneers.
Justice Frye’s story is replete with firsts. Frye was the first black student admitted to the UNC School of Law, one of the South’s first black assistant U.S. attorneys, and the first black representative to the North Carolina General Assembly since Reconstruction. Most importantly, Justice Frye became the first black associate (and later chief) justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Covington, a journalist and North Carolina resident, chronicles Frye’s many brushes with institutionalized racism. In a particularly infuriating incident, Justice Frye, a college graduate and Air Force Captain, was denied the right to vote due to his refusal to take the state’s overtly racist “literacy test.” This disappointment occurred hours before his wedding to his wife, Shirley. Justice Frye marks this occasion as his inspiration for attending law school.
Covington paints Justice Frye as a man of steadfast principles but a product of the cautious mentors of his youth. Never one to seek the spotlight or deliver a raucous speech, Justice Frye was a pragmatist who focused on concrete solutions to the very real problems North Carolina faced in the second half of the 20th Century. As both a legislator and a judge, Justice Frye approached every situation with an open mind, reserving judgment before all the evidence was presented. His lack of ego and belief that the law (and by extension political office) was a fundamental force for good made Justice Frye the model statesman. When those of a certain age wax nostalgically for government defined by polite discourse, they are talking about men like Henry Frye.
As part of their orientation into law school, members of the Elon Law Class of 2016 were required to read Justice Frye’s biography. During the subsequent group discussions, the students reflected on how to incorporate Justice Frye’s philosophy into their own education and subsequent practice. Justice Frye then delivered the convocation address in his customary fashion. Beginning with an impromptu poem, Justice Frye imparted words of wisdom and encouragement to the new students. After a concise but captivating convocation, Justice Frye welcomed the incoming students into the legal profession. As harbingers go, they couldn’t have asked for anyone better.
Henry Frye: North Carolina’s First African-American Chief Justice is available on Amazon in paperback (ISBN: 0786475757) and on Kindle.