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Elreta Alexander-Ralston paved the way for black women on the bench

Published in Greensboro News & Record on April 7, 2019

Written by Virginia L. Summey

Judge Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston — a pioneering figure in the latter days of the civil rights movement whose work and legacy took a range of forms both on and off the bench — would have turned 100 years old this year.

Her birthday was March 21, two weeks to the day after Cheri L. Beasley was the first African-American woman sworn in as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The new chief justice follows a path that Alexander-Ralston cleared through a wilderness of racial barriers and sexism.

Alexander-Ralston, who died in 1998 at the age of 78, was extraordinary from the start.

She graduated from Dudley High School at age 15 and N.C. A&T at age 18.

She was the first African-American woman admitted to the Columbia University School of Law, where she had enrolled in 1943; the first to practice law in North Carolina; the first in the country to become an elected judge.

She also joined three white lawyers to form the first integrated law firm in the South.

As an attorney she became a civil rights advocate, highlighting the hypocrisy of segregation. After being elected to the bench in 1968, she developed the practice of alternative sentencing for juveniles, creating what was one of the first deferred-sentencing programs in the country.

Her election to the bench was greeted in two different, but very fitting ways.

In the black community, there was joy. She had shattered a wall.

“It was almost an unbelievable situation,” says Eula Vereen, then a professor in home economics at N.C. A&T, told the News & Record in 1999. “We had a young lady, a popular lawyer, a smart young lady, a black young lady, becoming a judge, and we just loved her for that. Black people were thrilled to death. It’s what we were all talking about.”

But among some white peers in the local legal community, it was unremarkable. Why not her?

“I can’t remember it being any different than any one I’ve been to,” attorney and former District Court Judge Herman Enochs, who was sworn in alongside Alexander-Ralston in a ceremony in December 1968, told the News & Record in 1999.

“It was never a black/white issue. Her winning was no great bolt out of the blue. Nobody thought it was a big deal — everybody respected her and knew her as a great attorney.”

Despite her impeccable credentials and contributions to the legal community, Alexander-Ralston, a Smithfield native, is still relatively unknown outside of Greensboro.

In 1974 Judge Alexander ran for the Republican nomination for North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice.

She had decided to run as a Republican because she considered her chances of winning better in the GOP primary than in the Democratic primary.

But the Republicans were no less welcoming.

She did not advance to the general election, which would have pitted her against Susie Sharp, who went on to become the first female Supreme Court Chief justice in the state. Alexander-Ralston lost to James Newcomb, a fire-extinguisher salesman from eastern North Carolina with little more than a high school education.

Faced with the option of a highly qualified female judge and a completely unqualified alternative, Republican leaders such as Jesse Helms and Gov. Jim Holshouser refused to endorse either candidate in the general election. It was a transitional period in North Carolina politics, and this race, combined with Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” solidified the Republican Party’s shift to the wrong side of civil rights issues.

It would take some 32 years for an African-American woman to attain a seat on the Supreme Court bench in North Carolina.

In 2006 Gov. Mike Easley appointed Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, opening up new possibilities. (Timmons-Goodson wrote a tribute to Alexander-Ralston in a 2012 essay titled, “Darlin’, the Truth Will Set You Free,” one of Alexander-Ralston’s favorite sayings.)

Finally, on March 7, North Carolina saw its first African-American woman take the oath as Supreme Court chief justice, in Cheri Beasley. A judge for 20 years, Beasley was first appointed to the Supreme Court in 2012 by Gov. Beverly Perdue and appointed to her current position by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Despite her obvious qualifications, Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, criticized the move, citing “decades-old precedent” as the reason why a white male, Justice Paul Newby, should have been appointed instead.

Berger’s claim is easily debunked, as over the past 50 years gubernatorial appointments to fill judicial seats have hardly been nonpartisan.

Regardless of party, the political establishment has a dubious history with African-American women and judicial posts. While the impenetrable dual barriers of race and gender that Judge Elreta Alexander-Ralston could not overcome in 1974 has now been breached, with more women of color winning being appointed to local and state judgeships. But the appointment of women, particularly minority women, no matter how qualified, still can be a charged and uphill battle against partisanship, racism and sexism.

Chief Justice Beasley has succeeded as a result of her own hard work and qualifications, but also of those who came before her. This includes Justice Susie Sharp and Henry Frye of Greensboro, the first African-American chief justice in the state. And it also includes Judge Alexander-Ralston.

I am proud that the city of Greensboro is actively recognizing her and other important women in all areas with the new Ruth Wicker Tribute to Women. Let’s hope that those in Raleigh follow our lead. Rather than minimizing the accomplishments of women, let’s recognize this hard-earned moment that was a century in the making.