On Feb. 3, 1983, Richmond County native Henry Eli Frye made history becoming the first African American to serve on the N.C. Supreme Court.
From growing up outside of Ellerbe working in cotton and tobacco fields on his family’s farm to serving in one of the most prestigious roles in the state, Frye is accredited with numerous 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 a N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice.
The son of Walter A. Frye and Pearl (Motley) Frye, he was born on Aug. 1, 1932 in Ellerbe. Frye graduated from the former Mineral Springs High and from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University in 1953 with the highest honors, summa cum laude. During his collegiate years, he was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and received a commission as a second lieutenant. He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force from 1953-1955.
Following graduation, Frye was denied the 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 quizzed him on American presidents. This turning-point moment further ignited his passion for equal justice and inspired him to become a lawyer. In 1959, he graduated from UNC School of Law with honors and practiced law as an attorney in his own private law practice from 1959-1963.
In 1963, Frye served as assistant U.S. Attorney in the North Carolina Middle District. Frye was one of the first black lawyers in the South to serve as assistant U.S. attorney, and was later elected to the N.C. General Assembly, which marked the first time a black man served as a state legislator in the 20th century. He was named to the state Supreme Court in 1983 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt and served 17 years as the court’s first black associate justice and, later, chief justice from 1999-2001.
During 18 years on the court, he authored 347 decisions and 75 dissents, but his exhaustive preparation and quiet power of persuasion magnify his presence.
In addition to practicing law privately and in numerous sectors of the 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 Jan. 23, 2018, a bridge that overlooks 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 the money and complete the series of steps required by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Gov. Roy Cooper was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. He said that 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 ought to “look like the people it serves.”
The UNC School of Law honored Frye in 2018 with a Bridge Builder scholarship in his name. The need-based scholarships are named for a man whose work, advocacy and personal example helped forge a more inclusive, unified and aspirational Carolina community.
Join us today, to celebrate the recent 39th anniversary of his appointment to the NC Supreme Court, his Richmond County heritage, and the countless other contributions to our county and state throughout his successful career.
*See the blog post on our website that includes a list of links for more information on Frye’s long list of accomplishments, awards, and prestigious career: https://visitrichmondcounty.com/f/judge-henry-ell-frye*
Meghann Lambeth is executive director of the Richmond County Tourism Development Authority.
(Editor’s Note: Visit Richmond County is highlighting prominent local African Americans each day in February in honor of Black History Month. Previous individuals featured include late Richmond County sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr., late state representative Harrison Ingram Quick, dancer and makeup artist Ciarra Kelley, Ellerbe Mayor 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. See the Visit Richmond County Facebook page for more on these outstanding individuals.)