RALEIGH - Henry Frye was sworn in yesterday afternoon as the first black chief justice in the history of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Gov. Jim Hunt named Frye to replace retiring Chief Justice Burley Mitchell in August, bringing a great deal of attention to the North Carolina Supreme Court and North Carolina politics. Prominent leaders in the black community and lawmakers have overwhelmingly supported the appointment and Frye himself.
"This is a very historic event for the citizens of North Carolina," said Rep. Thomas Wright, D-Wilmington, chair of North Carolina's legislative black caucus.
"By appointing Justice Frye to this position, Gov. Hunt has taken another step in moving all of the citizens of North Carolina forward," he said.
Born and raised in North Carolina during the 1950s, Frye was once even prohibited from voting by a state grandfather clause, which denied enfranchisement to citizens whose grandfathers had not voted.
He later served Guilford County for six terms, becoming the first black politician this century to be elected to the State House of Representatives.
Friends, family and colleagues say Frye has always been committed to improving his own situation as well as creating opportunities for blacks in general.
"It's great that my brother is the first African American to obtain this position," said Elbert Frye, after the ceremony.
"He has always believed in overcoming the odds no matter how impossible they seem at the time," the proud brother added.
In addition to his experience in the House, Frye practiced law for 10 years and served as a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law from 1965 to 1967. He also served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina from 1963 to 1965.
As chair of the North Carolina Supreme Court Judicial Advisory Commission for Court Operations, Frye advised Mitchell on operating matters regarding trial courts in North Carolina.
"I have had the opportunity to work with Justice Frye for 32 years, and he has continuously demonstrated his hard work and dedication to everything that he's done," said Pauline Irving, Frye's executive assistant. "I'm sure there will be a lot of hard work for us, but Justice Frye will approach his tasks with his characteristic skill and work ethic."
Some of the attendees of the swearing-in ceremony were past colleagues who recounted the tremendous impact Frye had on their legal careers as well as their personal lives.
"As an undergraduate at Duke and then a law student at Harvard, I knew that I wanted to go into law, but when I worked for Justice Frye I was inspired to fully commit to the legal profession," said Kenneth Lewis, Trinity '83 and one of Frye's former research assistants.
"Justice Frye is one of the most talented men in the state... and North Carolina [should] be proud that he's the head of our judicial," he said.
Leaders of the black community noted the social significance of the appointment, but said there is still much to be done to improve the status of blacks.
"The African-American youth can learn a lot from [Justice Frye's] great achievements," said Wright. "His accomplishments send the message that if you are willing to work hard and perform well in school, no goal is out of your reach. We still have a lot of work to do, but we're making a lot of gains."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.