N.C. legal trailblazer honored with Elon Law's highest professional award

The Hon. Henry E. Frye, a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina and a pioneering figure in North Carolina politics, was honored this month with Elon Law’s 2018 Leadership in the Law Award.

A North Carolina legal legend who shattered racial barriers throughout his distinguished career in his home state received Elon University School of Law’s highest professional honor on Oct. 17, 2018, at an annual leadership event led by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly in partnership with Elon Law.

The Hon. Henry E. Frye, the first African American to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina and the first African American elected to the state legislature in the 20th century, accepted Elon Law’s Leadership in the Law Award during a banquet in Greensboro attended by 150 of the state’s top legal leaders, practitioners, scholars, and their families.

“Chief Justice Henry Frye is a worthy recipient of Elon Law’s Leadership in Law Award simply for the titles that he has held and the doors that he has opened,” Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman said in presenting the award. “We know these facts and we know that the United States of America, North Carolina, and we as individuals are better for Henry’s leadership in breaking down doors.”

“Henry Frye is one of a kind, a leader who would be the first to declaim that nomenclature. Yet, we who know his contributions to nation, state and community, who know his commitments to family and friends, who know his character and temperament, know that Henry Frye has led us to being better about ourselves. That is unique and special and a mark of true leadership.”    

For more than six decades, Chief Justice Henry E. Frye has been at the forefront of movements that ensure equal access to justice in North Carolina. His contributions to the law are highlighted by:

  • Serving as the first African-American chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina from 1999-2001
  • Serving as the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, a position he assumed in 1983
  • Winning election to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1968, the first African-American to do so in the 20th century
  • Helping to lead a nonpartisan committee of retired North Carolina jurists dedicated to nonpartisan redistricting and the advancement of civic participation

In accepting the award, Frye praised the evening’s honorees for their commitment to the profession and for contributing to the betterment of their communities and the lives of their clients.

“We’re leaders because, first of all, someone had confidence in us,” Frye said. “We’re leaders because we have an educational background and the training and we have knowledge, and because lawyers are listened to in our communities. They look up to us. They believe that we know the law. They believe that we also are willing to help.

“We can make a difference in the lives of people. That’s what we do.”

Frye’s vital contributions to North Carolina as a jurist, civil rights activist, state legislator, and educator have inspired generations of young people to use their education in pursuit of the public good. In addition to his civic service, Frye has more than 24 years in the private practice, 10 years as president of a local bank, two years as an assistant U.S. attorney, and two years as a law school professor.

Frye has long supported Elon University School of Law, where he serves as a founding member of the law school’s Board of Advisors. He is one of three former North Carolina chief justices whose name is affixed to Elon Law’s annual Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition.

Born and raised in Ellerbe, North Carolina, Frye graduated with honors from N.C. A&T State University before serving as a captain in the United States Air Force. Upon his return home only to be denied the right to vote after he was forced to take a spurious literacy test, Frye enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn a law degree and advocate for an end to voter disenfranchisement because of skin color.

He is married to Shirley Frye, who accompanied him at the banquet, and together they have two sons: Harlan Frye and Henry E. Frye Jr.

Elon Law’s Leadership in the Law Award was presented during North Carolina Lawyers Weekly’s “Leaders in the Law” program that recognized 30 of the state’s most accomplished attorneys for their own leadership in the profession. The program included contributions from Elon Law Leadership Fellows who introduced Lawyers Weekly’s own honorees and presented them with the newspaper’s award plaques. Elon Law has partnered with North Carolina Lawyers Weekly since the inaugural program in 2011.

The law school’s Leadership Program has been recognized by the American Bar Association for its mission to prepare future lawyers for professional leadership opportunities. The school established its leadership award to honor lawyers who make outstanding contributions to the law and society.

“Elon Law happily supports celebrations like this one because they remind us that leadership matters,” Bierman told honorees and their guests at the leadership banquet. “The challenges we face as a national community exist across fields as diverse as sport, religion, government, business, education and entertainment. We seem desperate for leadership when we just need to look around this room to identify effective, helpful and diverse leaders.

“Thank you for what you do as leaders to promote our communities and our profession.”

Previous Leadership in the Law Award recipients

  • The Hon. Robert N. “Bob” Hunter Jr., associate justice, North Carolina Court of Appeals
  • Patricia Timmons-Goodson (2016), vice chair, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
  • Leslie J. Winner (2015), executive director, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation
  • The Hon. Mark Martin (2014), chief justice, Supreme Court of North Carolina
  • Charles L. Becton (2013), attorney/judge/higher education leader in North Carolina
  • Fred Lind (2012), Guilford County public defender
  • Michael T. Marshall and Karen McKeithen Schaede (2011), Greensboro attorneys and founding Elon Law preceptors

About Elon Law:

Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the preeminent school for engaged and experiential learning in law. It integrates traditional classroom instruction with highly experiential full-time residencies-in-practice in a logically sequenced program of transformational professional preparation. Elon Law’s groundbreaking approach is accomplished in 2.5 years, which provides distinctive value by lowering tuition and permitting graduates early entry into their professional careers.