Henry Frye: Installments

Part 1: An Officer and a Scholar

Episode 1 of Biographical Conversations with Henry Frye traces the future statesman’s journey from farmer’s son to law school graduate. The eighth of Walter and Pearl Frye’s twelve children, Henry Eli Frye was born in August 1932 in Ellerbe, North Carolina, and spent his early years toiling on his father’s farm. “My dad said we worked from can’t to can’t….you can’t see when you start in the morning, and you can’t see when you stop at night.”  Despite the long hours, Henry excelled in school, serving as valedictorian when he graduated from high school in 1949, and earning entry to North Carolina A&T. During his second year on the A&T campus, young Henry casually asked a freshman named E. Shirley Taylor to a dance. “Things went well,” Mr. Frye recalls of their first date. Six years later, the two were married. On the morning of wedding day—August 25 the 1956, the groom-to-be stopped by the Ellerbe registrar’s office, intending to register to vote. Instead, he was given a literacy test. Unable to answer obscure questions (he was asked to name all the signers of the Declaration of Independence), Mr. Frye, a summa cum laude college graduate and US Air Force Officer who had just been admitted to the University of North Carolina Law School, was denied registration. It was an incident Henry Ell Frye would never forget.

Part 2: State House and Senate

Henry Frye graduated from of University of North Carolina Law School in 1959, and opened his own practice in Greensboro.  “People ask me ‘What did you do?’” Mr. Frye recalls of his professional beginnings. “I did whatever came in the door.” The young lawyer might have gotten off to a slow start, but by 1963 his work was impressive enough to gain the attention of the nation’s attorney general, Robert Kennedy, who chose Mr. Frye to serve as an assistant attorney general—one of the first African Americans in the south to gain that appointment. Though Mr. Frye’s tenure was cut short by President John Kennedy’s tragic assassination in November 1963, it did provide the future justice with valuable experience. Three years later, Mr. Frye contemplated a run for the North Carolina House of Representatives. “From 1900 to 1966, no African American had been elected to the North Carolina legislature,” Mr. Frye recalls.  “And so, when people went to the legislature, it was no African American—and I just—I said, “That can’t be right.  We—we’ve got to have one.” Though Mr. Frye did not win a seat in the 1966 election, he ran once again in 1968. This time, he emerged victorious. In January 1969, Mr. Frye presented his first bill to the House: a constitutional amendment to abolish the literary test as a requirement for voting. Given little chance of passage, the bill nonetheless made its way successfully through both chambers of the state legislature. Driven by his own experience years ago, Mr. Frye took great pride in that achievement, despite the fact that the amendment was not passed by the public. “I felt I had done what I had to do.” In fact, Mr. Frye was to do a great deal more, including opening the first African American-owned bank in the state in 1971, and serving six terms in the state House. Episode Two ends with Mr. Frye’s successful 1980 campaign for the North Carolina Senate, where he would serve until 1983, when a phone call from the governor led to a new career.

Part 3: Supreme Justice

Henry Frye had already served as one of the first African American assistant district attorneys in the South, after Robert Kennedy appointed him in 1963. He had also become the first African American to win a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives, when he triumphed in the 1968 election. So in 1983, when Governor James Hunt asked Mr. Frye to serve as the first African American justice on the North Carolina State Supreme Court, the senator found himself in a familiar position. Though he never aspired to be a judge, Senator Frye accepted the post, and the opportunity to be, once again, a trailblazer. “With the history being as it was for the Supreme Court of North Carolina, to never have had an African American on there and to think of the fact that I might be able to make a contribution…my answer was yes.” Justice Frye won reelection to the court in 1984 and in 1992. Seven years later he had yet another opportunity to break a barrier when the sitting State Supreme Court chief justice, Burley Mitchell decided to step down.  In August 1999 Henry Ell Frye became the first African American Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Though he would lose reelection to the post in 2000, Justice Frye completed his 31-year public service career at the pinnacle of the North Carolina legal system.