The Richmond Observer – BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Ellerbe’s Frye Achieves Multiple State Firsts

On February 3, 1983, Richmond County native Henry Eli Frye made history when he became the first African American to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

From growing up outside Ellerbe working the cotton and tobacco fields on the family farm to one of the most prestigious roles in the state, Frye is accredited with many historic firsts for a black man. in North Carolina, including being the first African-American. elected to the state House of Representatives in the 20th century and as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Son of Walter A. Frye and Pearl (Motley) Frye, he was born on August 1, 1932 in Ellerbe. Frye graduated from the old Mineral Springs High and North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University in 1953 with highest honors, summa cum laude. During his collegiate years, he was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and received a commission as a second lieutenant. He served as a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force from 1953 to 1955.

After graduating, Frye was denied registration to vote when he failed a literacy test in which the clerk asked him to name the signers of the Declaration of Independence and asked about American presidents. This watershed moment ignited his passion for equal justice and inspired him to become a lawyer. In 1959, he graduated from UNC Law School with honors and practiced law as an attorney in his own private law firm from 1959 to 1963.

In 1963 Frye served as Assistant United States Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. Frye was one of the first black attorneys in the South to serve as Assistant United States Attorney, and was later elected to the NC General Assembly, which marked the first time a black man served as a state legislator in the 20th century. He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1983 by the then governor. Jim Hunt and served 17 years as the court’s first black associate judge and later chief justice from 1999 to 2001.

During 18 years in the field, he wrote 347 decisions and 75 dissents, but his exhaustive preparation and his power of quiet persuasion magnify his presence.

In addition to practicing law privately and in many areas of government, Frye has also taught as an adjunct professor and visiting professor at North Carolina Central Law School and North Carolina A&T State University, respectively.

On January 23, 2018, a bridge that spans the land where Frye grew up on Green Lake Road was named in his honor. The honor was the result of a year of work by the Mineral Springs Improvement Council to raise funds and complete the series of milestones required by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Governor Roy Cooper was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. He said Frye is an example of a leader who can bring people together rather than divide them and credited the jurist with showing him that a state government should “be like the people it serves.”

UNC Law School honored Frye in 2018 with a Bridge Builder Fellowship in his name. Need-Based Scholarships is named after a man whose work, advocacy, and personal example helped forge a more inclusive, unified, and ambitious Carolina community.

Join us today in celebrating the recent 39th anniversary of his appointment to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, his Richmond County legacy, and the countless other contributions to our county and state throughout his successful career. .

*See the blog post on our website which includes a list of links for more information on Frye’s long list of accomplishments, awards and prestigious career: -ell-frye*

Meghann Lambeth is executive director of the Richmond County Tourism Development Authority.

(Editor’s Note: Visit Richmond County highlights prominent local African Americans each day in February in honor of Black History Month. Previous individuals include the late County Sheriff of Richmond James E. Clemmons Jr., late state Rep. Harrison Ingram Quick, dancer and makeup artist Ciarra Kelley, Mayor of Ellerbe Brenda Capel, two-time Super Bowl champion Perry Williams, Bishop Arlester Simpson of Ellerbe , Richmond County School Board member Ronald Tillman and educator Melvin Ingram. Check out the Visit Richmond County Facebook page to learn more about these exceptional people. )