Editorial Roundup: North Carolina

Winston-Salem Journal. February 21, 2024.

Editorial: Forever together: The legacy of Henry and Shirley Frye is now cast in stone

In a time when hardly anyone can seem to agree on anything, we double-dog dare you to find one person who opposes the newly erected statues of Henry and Shirley Frye in downtown Greensboro.

The bronze likenesses of one of North Carolina’s most beloved and respected couples were officially dedicated Tuesday in Center City Park with all the pomp and circumstance they deserved.

Gov. Roy Cooper was there. As was Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan. And the chancellor of the Fryes’ alma mater, Harold Martin of N.C. A&T.

That seems about right.

To recap only a few of his achievements, Henry Frye was the first Black chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, and before that the first Black justice on court, and before that the first Black lawmaker in North Carolina in the 20th century, serving in both the state House and Senate.

His wife Shirley has been a driving force and steadying influence behind any number of worthy causes, including the integration of Greensboro’s YWCAs.

She has been an assistant vice chancellor at A&T, vice president for community affairs at WFMY-TV, a public school teacher, an active volunteer and a tireless community leader more concerned with getting things done than getting credit.

The Fryes seem too good to be true, and yet, here they are, perfectly matched and inseparable.

Gov. Cooper called the Fryes “real-life superheroes” who do amazing things that seem impossible.”

Together, over the years, they have led with their minds and their hearts, not their egos. While neither of them is particularly shy (in fact, far from it), good luck getting them to glorify themselves. The impressive record of their accomplishments speaks loudly enough.

Born on a farm in Ellerbe as the eighth of 12 children, Henry Frye decided that he would become a lawyer after he was denied the right to vote by a literacy test. Sure enough, in 1959, he was the first Black student to complete three years of study and graduate from the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Throughout his career Frye has never been flamboyant, just relentlessly successful, and effective, one historic first after another.

The same should be said of his college sweetheart, a Fremont native who is gifted at running meetings and keeping public events on schedule, down to the minute. (Long-winded speakers beware.)

In fact, as a standing ovation for her threatened to go longer at Tuesday’s ceremony, she gently shut it down.

“That’s enough,” she said. The audience chuckled … and dutifully sat.

As for how the idea for the statue evolved, it began in a 2022 column in the Greensboro News & Record that called for Henry Frye to be honored with a statue in Greensboro while he could appreciate it. Of course, it’s easy to imagine anything. Making it a reality is an entirely different proposition.

Thankfully, some members of the community agreed, including Frye’s former law firm, Brooks Pierce, and especially Jim Melvin, a former mayor of Greensboro who is president of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. Melvin fast-tracked the project with money and influence and one important addition: It absolutely needed to include Shirley Frye. You can’t have one without the other.

The Greensboro City Council voted unanimously in 2023 to make room for the statues in Center City Park. And the rest, as they say, will be history.

There were minor bumps along the way.

For instance, the Fryes thought their facial expressions were too grim in the original model, so tweaks were made.

And even after the statues were complete, securing a granite base took longer than expected.

But on Tuesday, before a crowd that squeezed into Center City Park, the blue shrouds that covered the 6,000-pound life-sized sculpture finally were lifted.

And most important, Henry and Shirley Frye, both in their 90s, were there to see it.

Characteristically, they treated the honor with grace, humility and humor. During his remarks, Henry announced his candidacy for president. After someone had recited the litany of firsts on Henry’s resume, Shirley added that he also was her “first husband.”

As richly as they both deserve this honor, the Fryes also seemed genuinely touched and humbled by it.

She and her husband “have tried to live a meaningful life,” Shirley Frye said.

Mission accomplished. Many times over.