Vanguard of change: New biography pays tribute to Henry Frye

Oct. 11, 2013 @ 11:29 AM

“Henry Frye: North Carolina’s First African American Chief Justice”

By Howard E. Covington, Jr. (McFarland and Company, $29.95)

The recent attempts to change qualifications for voting in North Carolina do not come as a shock to Henry Frye.

Although he was a 1953 graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and had served as an officer in the Air Force, Frye was turned down in his first attempt to register to vote.
Frye went to his hometown of Ellerbe, 73 miles south of Greensboro, to register as the first person in his family to do so. (Very few black residents of Ellerbe and Rockingham County were on the voter rolls.)
But he was shocked when he was told he would have to pass a rigorous exam by the registration clerk. The exam would consist of questions about the Constitution and to name a certain number of signers of the Declaration of Independence. He didn’t try to answer and said he didn’t believe it was required. The clerk pointed to a book on the counter as the authority citing a 1900 amendment to the state constitution.
Frye then left but, thinking there must be some kind of a mistake, he returned only to be told that indeed he could not register since he had failed the literacy test. Even though he appealed and was registered a week later, he never forgot the incident.
Years later when he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, Frye shepherded a bill through the legislature setting a referendum to repeal the constitutional amendment that established the literacy test for voting. The voters rejected the amendment, but six weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that literacy tests, including those in North Carolina, were unconstitutional.
Frye, now 81 years old, was among the vanguard of courageous changers of the status quo in civil rights.
As Greensboro author Howard E. Covington, Jr. tells us, Frye won election in 1968 as the first African-American to serve in the North Carolina House of Representatives in the 20th century and he racked up many more firsts for those among his race capped by his appointment to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1983 and his elevation to chief justice in August 1999.
Covington’s book is much more than a single-focused biography. Through exhaustive research that readers of his other books have come to expect from him, Covington gives helpful background on all the many issues where Frye’s leadership made a magnificent difference for all citizens of North Carolina.

Marion A. Ellis is a Durham-based author who has written several books and is currently helping former Gov. Beverly Perdue write her life story.