Former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye, the second guest in the Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series Monday, Oct. 8, said good lawyers are trustworthy people who truly care about making a positive difference in the lives of others. Details...
Frye shared stories from his childhood in Ellerbe, N.C., and his career as an attorney, legislator, business leader and N.C. Supreme Court justice with moderator John Alexander and an audience of 200 people at the Empire Room in downtown Greensboro.
Alexander, the 2007-2008 Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership at Elon, asked Frye about growing up as an African American on a tobacco and cotton farm in rural North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s.
“We were country folks, and black and white folks lived in the same places in the country,” Frye said. “We worked together in the field, but when the weekend came or it came time to go to school, we went our separate ways.”
Still, Frye said being exposed to different kinds of people at a young age served him well throughout his life, and taught him about how to treat others, even when he encountered racism.
“I didn’t go around with a chip on my shoulder. I treated everybody else with respect and I expected them to treat me with respect.”
When he was denied voter registration in the 1950s, even though he had graduated from N.C. A&T State University, had served in the military and was a law student, Frye said he never tried to find out the name of the election official who turned him down after a so-called “literacy” test.
“You learn there are some things that aren’t worth worrying about,” Frye said.
Frye’s life has been a series of firsts. He was the first African American elected to the N.C. House in the 20th century. His appointment to the N.C. Supreme Court in 1983, and appointment as Chief Justice in 1999, were also firsts for African Americans.
Blazing new trails for African Americans, such as Frye’s leadership in starting Greensboro National Bank in the 1960s, has been gratifying, he said.
“I remember when it was news in Greensboro that a bank had hired a black man as a trainee,” Frye said. “We were able to give blacks (leadership) experience” at Greensboro National, now known as Mutual Community Savings Bank. “Not only working in a bank or managing a branch, but serving on the board of directors.”
Frye, a member of the Greensboro law firm of Brooks,Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard LLP, said the state of race relations in America today can best be described as “two steps forward and one back.” He disagrees with those who say no progress has been made in closing the racial divide. “There are a lot of things that are a lot better. We just have to keep working to make the changes that are good for the country.”
Asked by an Elon University School of Law student about the qualities that make up a good lawyer, Frye said an interest in people is crucial. “If your sole interest is in making money, then I hope you go into another profession. I think you’ve got to have the (welfare of others) as a part of what you’re doing.”
Another student asked for Frye’s advice to young lawyers. Frye cited a passage from the North Carolina Constitution that reads, “the frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.” It’s a reminder to lawyers, to everyone, “to continue to go back to the fundamentals,” Frye said. “If we keep coming back to those fundamental principles, we’ll have a better Greensboro, a better Triad, a better North Carolina, a better country, and hopefully, eventually, a better world.”
The Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Serieswill continue at 6 p.m., Monday, Nov. 5 at the EmpireRoom on South Elm Street in Greensboro. Aldona Wos, formerU.S. ambassador to Estonia, will be the featured guest.