Henry Frye

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Shannon Vickery interviews North Carolina native Henry Frye in another edition of UNC-TV's unique Biographical Conversations first person documentary series, which premieres in June 2013.

One August morning in 1956, an Air Force lieutenant was denied the right to vote. The lieutenant—who had recently graduated from college with a summa cum laude degree—had just failed a literacy test given by a voter-registration official. It was a difficult moment for the officer, but an important one for North Carolina. On that day, voter’s rights in the state gained a new champion; for the lieutenant vowed that he would work to outlaw the racially tinged literacy test. Fourteen years later, the officer, now an elected member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, kept his promise, sponsoring and pushing through a constitutional amendment that effectively ended the measure. A rousing story, but for Henry Ell Frye, it was just one chapter in a life defined by courage and initiative.

Born on a farm in Richmond County in 1932, the future lawyer, legislator, and judge grew up with eleven siblings, strict but loving parents, and a rigorous daily schedule that taught him the value of hard work and discipline. Armed with those skills as well as a keen intelligence, young Henry was valedictorian of his high school class, and then enrolled at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. In college, Henry Frye met his soul mate, and future wife, E. Shirley Taylor. Four years after graduating from UNC law school in 1959, Mr. Frye became one of the first African Americans in the south to serve as an Assistant US Attorney. And in 1968, Henry Frye became the first African American elected to the state legislature in the 20th century, when he successfully ran for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives.

After serving in the statehouse for eleven years and the state senate for two years, he became the first African American to sit on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1983, and the first to serve as chief justice in 1999. A devoted family man as well as a celebrated statesman, Justice Frye has successfully fought to advance liberty and justice…for all.

Biographical Conversations is supported by a grant from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation.

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