Two pioneering women judges from Durham’s history

The 150 years since the April 10, 1869, incorporation of the City of Durham by the N.C. General Assembly has provided lots of opportunities to bring about equity and inclusiveness in so many aspects of life in our great community. Even with the progress that we have made thus far, we still have to be ever-vigilant and constantly aware of equality issues.

August 26 is National Women’s Equality Day in honor of the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which spoke to the right of women to vote. Although that right was not universal, this amendment did make substantial progress in the ongoing quest for equal suffrage.

In addition to the commemoration of Women’s Equality Day, we find ourselves in the middle of discussions and debates about judicial issues on the national, state and local levels. Therefore, I thought this month might be a great time to spotlight two Durham women who were trailblazers in the area of females and the judiciary.

In 1934, Mary Rebecca (Mamie) Dowd Walker was appointed as the first judge for Juvenile Court for Durham City and Durham County. Through this appointment, according to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, which is published by the University of North Carolina Press, Walker became the first woman judge in North Carolina.

Judge Walker was a Durham native. She was born in May of 1880. Therefore, she lived through, and most likely was involved with, much of the struggle for women’s suffrage. During her service on the juvenile court, Walker worked across racial lines at a time when segregation was the norm. She formed professional partnerships with notable black leaders such as John Avery, W.D. Hill and Dr. J.B. Hubbard. Except for one term in 1941-42, Walker served until her retirement in 1949. She continued to live in Durham until her death in July of 1960.

Interestingly enough, around the time that Judge Walker was retiring, Karen Galloway, now Karen Bethea-Shields was born in the Method community within our neighboring county of Wake. According to an article, “Listening to History” by David Cecelski published in the Jan. 12, 2003, News & Observer, Karen Galloway Bethea-Shields was one of the first black students to graduate from Broughton High School (after earlier attending Berry O’Kelly High School), East Carolina University, and Duke University Law School.

In 1980, after a stellar early career as an attorney, Bethea-Shields became the first woman elected by the voters to a judgeship in Durham County. Similar to Walker and the suffrage movement, Bethea-Shields lived through, and was involved with, the modern civil rights movement. In fact, she was named “1976 Lawyer of the Year” by the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Thus, Judge Mamie Dowd Walker and Judge Karen Galloway Bethea-Shields helped to carry the quest for justice, equality, and inclusiveness for Durham, for North Carolina, and for the United States of America.

Eddie Davis is the public historian for Durham’s sesquicentennial.