From Cincinnatus to Cicero: North Carolina’s Lawyers in the Service
An Interview with Justice Henry E. Frye
Article Date: Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written By: Tod M. Leaven
|Justice Henry E. Frye
Justice Frye is not only a pioneer in civil rights, but is one of those rare persons, a blend of duty, honor, and human compassion, that makes one proud even to be a member of the same profession. A hard-working child and diligent student, an honorable and up-right officer, a courageous and sympathetic attorney and legislator, and a most fair and attentive justice, he has lived and continues to live a life of public service. His selfless contributions to his country and to the state of North Carolina are too many to count. Though he is the subject of many interviews, articles, and has even been incorporated into many schools’ lesson plans, this article focuses upon the few years he spent in the United States Air Force, which seems to have been an island of more modern civility in the substantial sea of bigotry in our country’s too recent history.
Justice Frye was born in 1932, the eighth of 12 children. He grew up on a small farm near Ellerbe, North Carolina. He attended segregated schools up through college. At North Carolina A&T State University, while majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, Justice Frye participated in the mandatory two years of Army ROTC, which was required of all able-bodied men. Advanced ROTC, was both voluntary and selective, and prepared graduates for military service as second lieutenants. Though President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the military in 1948, the Army did not officially announce its plans to desegregate until 1951. The Air Force, having recognized desegregation in 1949, established an advanced voluntary ROTC for officer training at North Carolina A&T and Justice Frye applied. Though he applied late, he was willing to double up on the required class load for the missed quarter in order to graduate as a commissioned officer in the Air Force. To put this in perspective, Justice Frye volunteered in 1951, during the deadliest American defeats in the Korean War, to become an officer and fight for a country whose Congress still embraced segregated schools and public facilities in its capital city.
Though the Air Force’s ROTC at A&T was not integrated, because there were only African Americans at A&T, the summer camps in Florida were. Prior to college, Justice Frye had worked his family farm, the farms of surrounding families, and manned the tobacco barns at night alongside white workmen. He says that there was a commonality amongst the rural working class while working regardless of race; he did not experience the same commonality with the non-working class or in New York, where he briefly worked after graduating A&T before being called to active duty. The officer candidates who attended the Air Force summer camps were not local rural workmen making a living, they were college students of all races and classes and from all over the country. It was the first real integrated schooling Justice Frye ever had and it proved to Justice Frye that there were no inherent learning differences among the races. Justice Frye graduated from A&T June 1st, 1953, with honors and as a commissioned Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
He was called to active duty December 29 of that same year and attended officer’s basic training in San Antonio, Texas, for a few months. He was sent to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado, President Eisenhower’s summer White House, for munitions training. It was here in Denver that Justice Frye had his first real exposure to foreigners and foreign culture. He remarked on the multiple ethnicities, especially the number of non-United States officers. Sometimes he was privy to other cultures’ inequities, as when a foreign officer commented that in his country “men are kings – sometimes tyrants.” However, he also saw the foreigners’ disbelief that the world’s greatest democracy harbored such racial injustice. After munitions training, Justice Frye shipped off to Suwon Air base in South Korea, mere months after the Korean Armistice. Suwon is roughly twenty miles south of Seoul and had changed hands four times during the Korean War. As best as Justice Frye could recall, there were only maybe four or five other African American officers at Suwon.
Justice Frye was with the Eighth Fighter-Bomber Wing and was in charge of the ammunition supply area, or the “bomb dump.” He replaced a warrant officer who was the acting area commander. As a testament to his natural leadership, efficiency, and respect, Justice Frye voluntarily let the warrant officer, a junior rank-holder, keep his command until the warrant shipped off. Justice Frye utilized this time to learn everything the officer had to teach about his command, the soldiers, and the site’s nuances. Too often, young officers would arrive at a location with a “new sheriff in town” attitude, which could ruin morale and seriously affect unit readiness and efficiency. Justice Frye said his “honest and practical” approach to leadership stemmed from his earlier life on the farm. “When you have eleven siblings and an important job to complete, you can’t be selfish. Sure you have to occasionally look after yourself, but you can rarely have things only your way.” His initial actions instantly won him the respect of his subordinates, peers, and senior officers.
Although the entire base was predominantly white, Justice Frye said it was extremely rare for junior African American airmen not in his chain of command to search him out for assistance. In fact, he could only recall one or two such instances. Later on in his public service as a North Carolina state representative for Guilford County, Justice Frye had an unmanageable amount of African Americans from across the state seek him out because he was the sole African American in the state general assembly. Individuals would come from all over the state asking Justice Frye to submit certain pieces of legislation or to look into certain injustices. He would patiently and compassionately liaise with their respective representatives and helped bridge the gap and normalize relations between the white representatives and their African American constituents. In explaining why the Air Force seemingly was immune to this type of disconnect, he said, “Integration just worked that well in the Air Force. They really took it quite seriously.” In October of 1954, the Eighth Wing transferred to Itazuke Air Base, now known as the Fukuoka airport, ninety miles north of Nagasaki, Japan.
Justice Frye travelled freely in Japan, climbing Mount Aso, and touring cities with three or four other officers. It was in Japan that he saw lawyers in a new light. When he was growing up, Justice Frye thought of attorneys as solely motivated by profit, and not to be trusted. The practice of law seemed more like a semi-necessary evil than an honorable career. He was talking to a fellow officer one day and learned that this gentleman, an attorney, would volunteer his weekends teaching inmates at the stockade how to read because it was the right thing to do. There was no personal profit except for the satisfaction of helping those who needed it the most. This image stuck in his mind and helped him decide to enter law school after his military service.
Justice Frye also discussed how the military was centered on the same higher aspirations that he has always held close to his heart. As a child, Justice Frye was a fan of King Arthur and his knights, and their belief that one should “be always ready with your armor on.” The chivalry of helping those that cannot defend themselves and working for honor rather than mere profit spoke to family values and the Golden Rule from church. While in the Boy Scouts, he lived by the law of “Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent,” which Justice Frye rattled off of the top of his head as if reciting them was a daily occurrence. At A&T he was very active in student organizations. The Bar’s rigorous ethics regimen was a natural continuation of these themes of honor and trust. Unfortunately, when he graduated from UNC School of Law, the local bar associations were only for white attorneys. They needed a little more time to learn to actually practice what they preached.
Justice Frye spoke fondly of how, after receiving less than a warm reaction from another graduate program, he was greeted energetically at UNC School of Law, which encouraged him to apply and even sent him an invitation in the mail the very next day. After being accepted at UNC School of Law, Justice Frye, a former wartime officer in the United States military, who graduated from college with honors and was admitted to law school, was denied the right to vote for failing the “literacy test.” He was the first African American to enroll at UNC School of Law, spend three years, and graduate. He continued to become North Carolina’s first African American Assistant United States Attorney. He worked in Greensboro during the civil rights movement, where he could represent the United States in court but was refused entrance in many Greensboro restaurants.
Justice Frye recalled a story about how a good friend he made while in the Air Force in Japan moved to America to attend school in Winston-Salem. His friend married and stayed in North Carolina after becoming a medical doctor and invited Justice Frye and his wife to a picnic in Tanglewood Park in Winston-Salem one day. His friend had to call Justice Frye a few days later to cancel the picnic upon realizing that although he was Japanese and allowed everywhere in the city, Justice Frye was not allowed in the park because he was African American. Justice Frye later became North Carolina’s first post-Restoration African American state legislator, where he helped strike down the last vestiges of the Jim Crow laws, which had denied him the vote before law school. He was the first African American North Carolina Supreme Court Justice and eventually its first African American Chief Justice.
Justice Frye said that it was in the military, with the exposure to many cultures in the United States and abroad, that he finally realized that everyone wanted the same thing: to be treated fairly. Of course, not everyone has the same idea of what “fair” is. He talked about how he particularly took to the generally observed Japanese aversion to the word no. “If there was a way to say yes, a way to make the situation work,” he said, “they would find a way.” He said this philosophy not only made him a better attorney, legislator, and justice later in life, but it made him an all-around better person. Many people miss out on this unified sense of purpose today. When asked if he would recommend military service to young men and women, he said that the United States should never have ended the draft. In Justice Frye’s view, the draft should not necessarily be limited to military service, either. It could incorporate other services, such as soil conservation. Justice Frye believes that America’s youth needs to know the dignity in discipline. They need a unifier like service.
Justice Frye said that though racial disparity is not as desperate as it was 40 years ago, social economic disparity is worsening in recent times and no one is discussing it like they should. He said the purpose of a soldier is to serve the country and the purpose of an attorney is to serve the law. The similarity is service to the people. To be effective at either profession, you need a strong moral compass and a lot of common sense. A computer could spit out a decent judgment maybe 50 percent of the time, but it does not know “technically legal” from injustice.
Tod M. Leaven is a United States Army veteran and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law.
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