Fighting within the bar: Judge Elreta Alexander and civil rights advocacy in Greensboro, North Carolina

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Virginia Summey, Doctoral Student (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Charles Bolton

Abstract: Elreta Melton Alexander (1919–1998) was a pioneering African-American attorney from Greensboro, North Carolina. Coming of age during the Jim Crow period of the South, she was the daughter of a Baptist minister and a teacher, and grew up in a black middle class community. The descendant of two white grandparents, her bi-racialism formed her early awareness of colorism within the African-American community. Alexander received her Bachelor of Arts from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University before going on to become the first African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1945. In 1947, she became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the North Carolina bar. Her husband, Dr. Girardeau “Tony” Alexander was a prominent surgeon at L. Richardson Hospital, the segregated hospital for African Americans in Greensboro. Their marriage, which lasted thirty years, was often troubled, with domestic violence, infidelity, and alcoholism, ending in divorce in 1968. After establishing her practice in Greensboro, Alexander became a successful attorney. In 1964, she defended Charles Yoes, who stood with three other men accused of raping a white woman, Mary Lou Marion. The trial went on to become the longest criminal trial in Guilford County court history at the time, and changed the county’s jury selection procedures. In 1968, Alexander became the first African-American woman to become an elected district court judge. During her tenure she created the controversial Judgment Day program, aimed at rehabilitating young, first-time offenders. In 1974, Alexander ran for North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice, losing in the Republican primary to James Newcomb, a white, fire-extinguisher salesman. Newcomb went on to lose to Democrat Susie Sharp, who became the first elected female state Supreme Court chief justice in the country. Alexander’s loss prompted changes to North Carolina judicial election requirements. Through it all, Alexander remained devoted to her only son, Girardeau, III, who suffered from schizophrenia. While not a well-known figure in the Civil Rights Movement, this dissertation offers a new perspective on civil rights leadership. Alexander was more than a judge to those she interacted with; she was also a teacher who integrated her commitment to civil rights in everything she did. As Alexander said, “Every case to me was a civil rights case.” This work contends Alexander dedicated her career to civil rights and challenging the status quo of the segregationist South through performative leadership and using her professional standing to advocate for marginalized individuals who lacked a voice in the southern legal system.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2017
Activism, African American, Civil Rights, Greensboro, Legal History, Women
Alexander, Elreta Melton, $d 1919-1998
African American women judges $z North Carolina $z Greensboro
African American women lawyers $z North Carolina $z Greensboro
African American women civil rights workers $z North Carolina $z Greensboro
African Americans $x Civil rights $z North Carolina $z Greensboro
African Americans $x Civil rights $x History $y 20th century
Greensboro (N.C.) $x History $y 20th century

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