When Mike Morgan, Trinity ’76, was elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in November, it was a historic moment.

Morgan is the first African American elected to the State Supreme Court without first being appointed by the governor. He is also the only African American male currently serving on the State Supreme Court.

Morgan’s life seems to be peppered with stories of firsts. From being one of the first students to integrate his local public school to helping charter Duke’s first African American Greek letter fraternity, he has forged new paths and left a legacy, time and time again.

“I am very proud, not only for myself, but for the people of North Carolina to have—as a southern state—to have continued to evolve to the point where [my election] was able to occur in such a massive strong way,” he said. "I feel very proud of that accomplishment that the people of North Carolina have afforded me."

Going to Duke

Morgan has deep ties to North Carolina, growing up in New Bern—a small, historic town in the eastern part of the state, where his father became the first African American mayor.

During his childhood, he was one of the first five students to integrate the New Bern public school system, and he later became the first black drum major of his high school band.

Entering Duke at age 16, Morgan encountered a very different University in 1972 than today’s Duke. African American students had only been admitted as undergraduates since 1963, and Duke had been riled by various protests throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It was a time of freedom, Morgan recalled.

Campus was engaged in candid political conversations during the Watergate scandal—especially since President Richard Nixon had attended Duke Law School and there had been a spell of streaking.

But a large part of Morgan’s Duke experience occurred outside the classroom, nurtured by his campus involvements and relationships.

The Black Student Alliance—then called the Afro-American Society—along with the black mass choir and intramural sports took up much of his time as an undergraduate, he explained. Morgan was also one of 13 charter members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Duke’s first historically African American fraternity.

With family members who were part of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Morgan noted that he and other students wanted to continue the legacy.

Morgan emphasized the importance of the black community he was able to find at Duke through both his fraternity and other campus involvements. The African American population on campus at the time was small—he said there were 86 black students admitted into his 1972 first-year class initially. Students found fellowship by supporting one another.

Black students normally sat at three tables for meals at the Cambridge Inn, Duke’s West Campus cafeteria at the time, he recalled.

“Because there were not many black students out of the population of Duke then, we found ourselves gravitating toward one another in a very strong sense," Morgan said. "Not in a separatist sense, but in a sense of unity to help give each other a sense of family."

To law school and beyond

As history and sociology major, Morgan explained that he was not always destined for a career in law—he had initially planned to major in the natural sciences.

A meeting with his academic advisor changed that.

“We looked at where my strengths and weaknesses were. My academic advisor said, ‘Actually you look like you’re better suited and tailored to go into some social science field,'” he said. “That’s when my tide turned for me about midway through my experience at Duke.”

After graduating in 1976, Morgan enrolled at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, where he was student body president during his final year and graduated with honors.

Upon completing law school, he took a job with the North Carolina Department of Justice, working there until 1989 when he became an administrative law judge. In 1994, he became a District Court judge in Wake County and then was elected to the Superior Court in 2005.

Last year, Morgan ran a statewide campaign for the State Supreme Court. Before his election, the court had a 4-3 Republican majority. When one of its Republican incumbents was up for re-election, Morgan ran against him. 

His victory Nov. 8 was a bright spot for liberals—the court’s partisan balance shifted, giving Democrats more leverage in a state where Republicans dominate the legislature. He won 54.5 percent of the vote and a majority of counties.

As Morgan took his place on the court, his Duke experiences stuck with him.

He explained that his social connections with other students and faculty members help him better understand perspectives of communities with different backgrounds.

“Certainly being in a multicultural student body such as Duke prepared me to understand the similarities and differences that we have as a society in America generally and in North Carolina specifically,” Morgan said. “I learned to appreciate the different cultures, the different backgrounds that all of us have, whether it’s social, political, economic, ethnic—because Duke is such a microcosm of society.”

Geoffrey Simmons, Duke Law ’77 and longtime friend of Morgan’s, described him as a charismatic man with a can-do spirit.

“The very first thing that you would think about when you think about Mike Morgan would be humility,” Simmons said. “Humility is what has made him successful. He never puts himself out as being better than anybody else. He doesn’t have a lot of ego—he just lets his work speak for him.”

Morgan noted that as an African American man on the State Supreme Court, he looks at the role as an opportunity to express a voice that was not heard in the state’s highest court for much of North Carolina’s history.

As he continues to forge his own pathways throughout his educational and professional career, he left some advice for current undergraduates.

“Utilize these valuable resources that Duke is fortunate to have to pass along its students,” Morgan said.