Published on:

Henry Frye: Trailblazer in Law and Life

By: Wayne Hopper, Legal Assistant

In celebration of Black History Month, Woodruff Family Law Group wants to shine a light on important contributions to African American advancement in the legal world and on the civil rights movement in general. It would be difficult to have that discussion without mentioning former North Carolina Chief Justice Henry Frye. Frye has been a trailblazer in various fields including law, politics, and scholarship, and his influence within these fields has served to inspire new generations to overcome obstacles and create their own “firsts.”

Henry Frye is a native son of North Carolina, born August 1st, 1932 in Ellerbe, North Carolina. Frye’s mother and father farmed tobacco and cotton in the fields of rural Richmond County. His parents imparted on him the importance of education. After finishing high school, Frye attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T).  After graduation he joined the United States Air Force as an officer, eventually reaching the rank of Captain and completing tours in Korea and Japan. Frye was inspired to become an attorney by his experiences with North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws. When Frye attempted to register to vote, he was denied based on so-called “literacy tests” for African American citizens. Frye enrolled in the University of North Carolina School of Law, becoming the only African American enrolled, and graduated in 1959.

It would not take long for Frye to make his mark in the legal world and elsewhere. In 1963, he became an assistant U.S. Attorney and in 1968 was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly, where he was the only Black legislator in the state and the second in its history. Frye used his position in the state legislature to strike down the last vestiges of the Jim Crow laws which he had personally faced several years earlier. He would be re-elected several more times and would serve in state government until 1982. During that time, he also taught law at N.C. Central University. In 1983 Frye would be appointed associate justice to the N.C. Supreme Court by Governor Jim Hunt, making him the first African American to hold the position. In 1999 Frye was appointed by Hunt as Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, another first in North Carolina.

Frye left the Court in 2000 after losing re-election and subsequently entered private practice. He currently practices law at Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard in Greensboro, North Carolina. He remains active in speaking and teaching and even served on the Elon School of Law Advisory Board to help launch the law school in 2006. Frye’s contributions and accomplishments are a reflection of his tenacity and drive to succeed in the face of adversity, something from which we can all learn.