‘Speak now, darlin.’ Bold and brazen, breaking barriers was Elreta Alexander-Ralston's bread and butter. So was the law.
Published in Greensboro News & Record on January 14, 2021
Written by Nancy McLaughlin
GREENSBORO — In walked a Black lady wearing a full-length mink coat and matching hat.
Everybody in the courtroom that day in the early 1960s shut up, including the high school students with their civics teacher, who all got a show from the back row of the colored section.
"Ms. Alexander, you can sit up here with us," a white lawyer intoned as the others coming in with her began filling in a row at the front of the courtroom.
Attorney Elreta Alexander-Ralston kept walking.
"She said, 'Oh, no. I prefer to sit amongst my people' — and swung that coat across her seat like it was a trench coat," recalled Joe Williams, who was one of those admiring students. "The whole class went back to school wanting to be lawyers."
That was Alexander-Ralston in rare form.
She died in 1998 and is remembered for an unusual career pioneering legal reform among an impressive list of firsts.
Courtroom 2A in the Guilford County Courthouse — where her portrait hangs — is named in her honor.
A child prodigy who graduated Dudley High School at 15 and N.C. A&T at 18, she is being celebrated as an unsung national hero by her alma mater, Columbia Law School, where as a part of the Class of 1945 she was the first Black female graduate.
“Elreta Alexander was a trailblazer both as a law student and later as a lawyer and a judge,” said Gillian Lester, dean of Columbia Law School. “Throughout her remarkable career, she was a force for justice, innovation and healing in her community, and her legacy is one that should be celebrated."
Sitting high on the bench, Judge "A" as she was known, often peered down over her reading glasses and sent tremors through the courtroom.
"Speak now, darlin', because the truth will set you free," she often cajoled.
Or sometimes demanded.
Also known for her fabulous furs and the click of her heels down the courthouse corridor, the bottle blond was alternately revered and feared.
The preacher's daughter would become the first Black woman to practice law in North Carolina and the first Black woman to argue a case before the N.C. Supreme Court.
She was also the first Black woman in the nation to sit on the bench who was elected by voters.
Alexander-Ralston's biography by historian and UNCG graduate Virginia Summey is scheduled for release this fall — she's still working on a title — and introduces readers to a life story that some know and many don't.
"No matter who I talk to who remembers her," she said, "they smile."
Summey, a North Carolina native, was working on a master's degree in history at the University of Montana when she got an assignment to write about pioneering women, and wanted to focus on someone from back home.
She came across Judge Elreta Alexander-Ralston while browsing the website for the North Carolina Museum of History.
"And then I kept going," Summey said.
Summey found out Alexander-Ralston's papers were donated to UNCG's archives.
Alexander-Ralston would become the focus of Summey's doctorate in history.
Now, the University of Georgia Press is releasing Summey's biography.
Summey, who was among the speakers at Columbia Law School's virtual event to celebrate Alexander-Ralston's achievements and influence, focused on the judge's unique method of what she calls "performance activism" to prove a point or start a discussion.
"Earlier in her career, she would make a performance out of highlighting the hypocrisy of segregation," Summey said. "Very brazenly in front of white male attorneys and judges she would say, 'I'm going to see this difference between white water and Black water.'"
Born Elreta Melton in 1919, she was the daughter of a Baptist minister and schoolteacher with biracial roots. None of the Melton children were allowed to ride in the back of the bus by their parents.
Her family moved from Smithfield to Greensboro when she was 12 after her father was hired to be a pastor at United Institutional Baptist Church, which stands today.
Even in her early years she had a strong sense of right and wrong.
While a student at historically Black Dudley High, young Elreta approached the principal about a teacher making fun of darker-skinned children.
After graduating from A&T, Alexander-Ralston taught high school math, history and music.
Later, after working on the campaign of a Black preacher in Greensboro who lost a race for City Council, he encouraged her to go to law school.
While at Columbia, Alexander-Ralston embraced her race and became an advocate for other African Americans, particularly Black women, Summey said.
Alexander-Ralston would later pass the New York State bar exam the first time, even as North Carolina put stumbling blocks in her path to taking the state bar here.
She practiced for two years in Harlem before coming back to Greensboro. As the story goes, it was Fannie White, a member of her father's church and housekeeper to one of the more prominent families in Greensboro, who played a part in removing some of the barriers to taking the state bar. She went to her boss, a businessman, who called a friend.
In Greensboro, Alexander-Ralston started a firm and later practiced alongside an older Black attorney who helped hone her trial skills.
In an interview, Alexander-Ralston recalled an early trial case in which she represented a landlord suing a tenant. Her nerves got the best of her and at times the jury reportedly seemed confused. But she won the case.
“Little lady, you have a good stance before the jury," the judge told Alexander-Ralston after asking her to approach the bench. "Don’t be discouraged. Just keep on. Keep on trying cases."
Among those other early cases, she sued the city of Greensboro in 1950 over Black residents not being able to use the public golf course. The city wouldn't integrate the course, but opened another golf course for minorities.
A case of child support should've been routine, but Alexander-Ralston didn't treat it that way. The judge awarded $5 a month, as was customary for the parents of Black children at the time, even though it was $10 for white children. Alexander-Ralston argued that the amount should be more. She also wanted to set a precedent that would benefit all children.
"Consider the fact that milk and baby food, diapers, all cost the same to a Negro mother as it did to a white mother," she argued.
Alexander-Ralton eventually formed a law firm with three white attorneys, Ed Alston and brothers Gerald and Jim Pell — the first integrated firm in the South.
That caught the attention of many, including the editors of Time magazine. They wanted her to be on the cover. She turned them down, saying she didn't create the firm for the notoriety.
"She said that was not our purpose. It was to form a successful law firm," Gerald Pell recalled.
Alexander-Ralston had a reputation for her legal acumen, sometimes wrapped biting commentary in jokes.
"She had the makings of an icon early in her career," Summey said.
She took on notable cases, including an interracial rape trial in Guilford County in 1964 where she uncovered how race was being used in the jury process.
According to an essay in the Elon Law Review by former state Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the case was significant to Alexander-Ralston's legal pursuits. Alexander-Ralston lost the case, but Timmons-Goodson, who has researched the trailblazer extensively, noted that it helped launch the Jury Commission in North Carolina for the purpose of ensuring fair jury selection.
"I think that’s about when I started thinking about becoming a judge," Alexander-Ralston said years later. "They were convicted, but it was like a kangaroo court. The judge called them 'niggers.'
"We didn’t have a chance."
In 1968, Alexander-Ralston would become the first Black woman in the nation elected to the bench.
In Greensboro, Black men and women in their Sunday best watched Alexander-Ralston's first husband, Dr. Giradeau Alexander II, help put on her robe that fifth day of December. The principal of still all-Black school Dudley High was there. So were members of the Greensboro NAACP.
She was cracking jokes, recalled William Goldsborough, a high school teacher and family friend, who took the morning off from school to be there.
"You don't know what we were going through," Goldsborough said after her death in April 1998. "You could go in the clothing store and sometimes you'd get waited on and sometimes you wouldn't. They wouldn't let Black women try on fancy clothing in some of those stores.
"She never said it, but I think she was proud to have opened the door for the others who would come behind her.
"It was a great day.''
Alexander-Ralston was known for the sheer force of her personality and style. It was a reputation she had developed from the thriving law practice in Greensboro. Outspoken. Flamboyant. Fierce. Unforgettable. Bold. She dressed well and had an air of authority about her that left no doubt who was in charge — even if she wasn't.
"She had a lot of personal courage in her soul," remembered Pell, the former law partner.
Timmons-Goodson, who met the judge as an undergraduate when Alexander-Ralston spoke to one of her classes at UNC, would later become the first Black woman to serve on the state Supreme Court in 2006.
"I’ve always been mindful of the shoulders on which I stood ... and the debt that so many of us owe to this great lady," Timmons-Goodson said.
As a District Court judge, Alexander-Ralston invented something that was unofficially called "Judgment Day."
Just made it up.
"She called it a 'prayer for verdict' continued, which did not exist in the law," attorney and former District Court Judge Joe Williams, a protege, told the News & Record in 2018.
She essentially gave certain defendants a second chance — if they took it.
Alexander-Ralston recognized that an inordinate number of Black children were being brought to the courthouse and charged with petty crimes and getting convicted. She reasoned that giving youthful offenders a chance to mend their ways meant they wouldn't be saddled for life with a criminal record.
"Her strategy was if you helped the wealthy white kids then you could help the Black kids in the community, because nothing could be said about it if you were feeding them all out of the same spoon," Williams said.
She intentionally chose the case of a white Eagle Scout, who on a dare stole something from a store, as the first case for "Judgment Day." His parents and their lawyer wanted a dismissal, but that required the assistant district attorney to drop the case.
She allowed the boy to plead not guilty, and told his parents she would give him a list of things to do to avoid possible jail time.
"It wasn't an easy thing," Williams said. "You had to go to your high school and in a seminar confess to all the students what you had done and tell them about the court system. You had to visit the jail and see a cell. You had to write a long dissertation about what you were going to do with your life and how this would affect it. In some cases, you had to do volunteer work. She had a blend of things to do.
"Then you had to come back on Judgment Day. If you had done all the things you were supposed to do, then she would enter a verdict of not guilty. And if you hadn't done those things, then you might see the jail."
Her strategy was a forerunner to deferred and alternative sentencing programs.
People who worked at the Guilford County courthouse or sat in her courtroom had lots of "Judge A" stories at her death.
Over the years that included the one about a white woman, who mistakenly thought Alexander-Ralston was white — probably because of her pale skin and blond hair — and whispered that she feared her runaway daughter was with "colored boys," according to a story shared with the News & Record at the time.
"Darlin', have you looked at your judge?" Alexander-Ralston responded.
She threatened to jail county commissioners because of rundown conditions in the courthouse and jail.
She rendered lesser verdicts to speeders to prevent insurance companies from raising their rates.
She freed a scalper at an NCAA Final Four that was held here because she said police didn't make those kinds of arrests at rock concerts.
Timmons-Goodson remembers as a District Court judge being assigned to Guilford County for the day and Alexander-Ralston, then retired, appearing in the courtroom.
"I can see her even now, walking down the aisle between the two sides of the benches — and the way that she walked!" Timmons-Goodson recalled. "The confident air and 'Your honor, may I approach the bench?'"
Alexander-Ralston could have quietly slipped the bailiff or another officer of the court a note.
"It was awesome," Timmons-Goodson said.
Alexander-Ralston also registered as a Republican when most Black people were Democrats.
In 1974, she lost the Republican primary for chief justice of the state Supreme Court to a white fire-extinguisher salesman. Alexander-Ralston had won her seat on the District Court as a Republican during a time in Guilford County when the Democratic primary essentially decided the election, so some had high hopes for her as a candidate for the state Supreme Court.
It wasn't long after that the requirement to run would change and require a law degree, but the short-term damage had been done.
"I think she was a little disappointed that someone with no credentials basically ... could win a primary against a well-qualified individual," Pell said. "She recognized we were still blinded by color."
Even with unsuccessful cases or the lost election, it was not all for naught. Her resolve to tackle the law helped bring changes to the jury system after the rape trial, with "Judgement Day" as an early precursor to alternative sentencing and voters approving a referendum requiring a law degree for judges after she lost to the fire-extinguisher salesman.
"I believe that she would say that boldness is what's called for," Timmons-Goodson said, "and when you are unapologetically strong in your efforts, some good will come of those efforts."
Even with all her successes, her personal life was turbulent.
"She was so frank and open about it, the domestic violence that she suffered," Summey said. "Everybody knew."
Alexander-Ralston and her husband, a surgeon at the segregated Black L. Richardson Hospital, divorced after 30 years and the birth of a son whose mental illness required 24-hour care.
Summey calls Alexander-Ralston a "brilliant compartmentalizer."
"She compartmentalized her professional life and personal life," Summey explained. "It happens to so many of us — domestic violence. It doesn't matter how strong or smart or successful they are."
Summey said Alexander-Ralston worked hard to make her marriage work, even as she excelled in her professional life.
"She was more than a brilliant legal scholar, she was a complicated human being as well," Summey said.
The couple divorced in 1968, the same year she was elected to the bench. Years later, she married John Ralston, who worked for the IRS. Her son died in 2003.
"Reviewers have said that is my trickiest chapter," said Summey about delving into the judge's personal life. "I don’t think it contradicts my thesis about her, but it adds nuance and it adds complexity. I also think it makes her much more real. She did have this larger-than-life persona and it does humanize her."
Some people have asked Summey if she could see her book on the movie screen one day for that very reason.
"I’ve had a couple of people say that," Summey said. "I’m focused on the short term now.
"I want people to know her name."