Celebrating the Life of Judge Elreta Melton Alexander ’45

The first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School was a pathbreaking litigator and jurist.

Judge Elreta Alexander

Elreta Melton Alexander ’45 (1919–1998)—a savvy trial lawyer, strategic litigator, and respected judge with theatrical flair—was a pioneer throughout her storied career. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School and the first Black woman in North Carolina to be licensed and practice as a lawyer, to argue before its Supreme Court, and to be elected a judge.

After her death, Alexander’s legacy was cemented in two scholarly articles: “‘Darlin’, the Truth Will Set You Free’—A Tribute to Judge Elreta Melton Alexander” by then-North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson (Elon Law Review, 2012) and a 2013 article in the North Carolina Historical Review by Virginia Summey that inspired Summey’s Ph.D. dissertation, Fighting Within the Bar: Judge Elreta Alexander and Civil Rights Advocacy in Greensboro, North Carolina. Summey’s biography of Alexander will be published by the University of Georgia Press in 2021. 

Learn more about Judge Alexander’s life and achievements below. 

Elreta Melton Alexander ’45 (1919–1998)

“Speak now, darlin’, because the truth will set you free.” 
—Judge Elreta Melton Alexander



Born in Smithfield, North Carolina, to biracial parents, Rev. J.C. Melton, a Baptist minister, and Alian Melton, a school teacher. She learns to read by age 4.


Academic Priorities

Moves with her parents, who place a priority on their children’s education, to Greensboro, North Carolina, home of two Black colleges established in the late 19th century. Alexander graduates at age 15 from Dudley High School—founded in 1929 as the first Black high school in Guilford County—and at age 18, earns a degree in music from Agricultural & Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University).


An Educator

Works as a teacher of music, math, and history in South Carolina and elopes with medical student Girardeau Alexander. While he finishes his studies, she continues to teach. (The couple has one son and divorces in 1968.)


Pioneering Law Student

Encouraged by a Greensboro minister to become a lawyer, she enrolls at Columbia Law School. (The top law schools in North Carolina did not accept Black students at the time.) Studies for the first time in a nearly all-white environment. Taking advantage of Columbia’s wartime accelerated two-year curriculum, she graduates in 1945. (The following year, Constance Baker Motley ’46 becomes the second Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law.)


Becoming an Advocate

Begins working for Hope Stevens, a prominent Harlem lawyer, businessman, and civic leader, who was the first Black president of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. She passes the New York bar the following year, and, in her first year of practice, she argues a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.


Breaking a Barrier

Commutes between New York and North Carolina, where she needs to establish residency to take the North Carolina bar exam and also demonstrate that she is an “exceptionally meritorious” applicant. Becomes the first Black woman licensed to practice law in North Carolina in 1947 and establishes a solo practice specializing in criminal and civil litigation, sometimes representing white clients and often arguing cases in segregated courthouses. 


Inspirational Speaker

Delivers speeches to African American communities around the state on family, citizenship, and self-reliance. For a Citizenship Emphasis Day event sponsored by the Negro Citizens’ Council of Wilmington, North Carolina, she is advertised as a “forceful speaker” and “aggressive civic and political leader.” 


Advocate for Equality

Sues the city of Greensboro on behalf of African American residents who are prohibited from playing at the public Elizabeth Park Golf Course. Alexander loses the suit, but the case leads the city to establish its first golf course for Blacks; Alexander writes the golf course’s charter.


Supreme Achievement

Sets another civil rights milestone when she becomes the first Black woman to argue a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court. In McKinley v. Hinnant, she represents the seller in a real estate dispute and the court rules partly in her client’s favor.


Challenging Systemic Racism

Defends four young Black men accused of raping a white woman in what was, at that time, the longest criminal trial in Guilford County history. Although the men are convicted, Alexander uses the trial to advance racial justice issues such as disparities in sentencing and bias in jury selection.


An Integrated Firm

Forms one the first integrated law firms in the South, with fellow attorneys Ed Alston and brothers Gerald and Jim Pell.


Using Her Voice

Publishes a book of poetry, When is a Man Free? The verse includes:

In Africa, the black man we tracked
Shackled him, and brought him back

To a life of misery,
And Tortures that have no rivalry.
When he cried out to be free
His body hung, dying, from a tree;
His children, we auctioned for pay;
Our charge for decency, thrown away


A Historic Win

Becomes the first Black woman elected as a district court judge in North Carolina. Her campaign slogan is “The Symbol of Justice Is a Woman. Elect a Living Symbol of Justice.” Judge A, as she was often called, is reelected in 1972, 1976, and 1980.


Progressive Justice

Creates the innovative alternative-sentencing Judgment Day Program for first-time juvenile offenders who plead guilty to crimes such as shoplifting, drug possession, or breaking and entering. Instead of incarceration, offenders do community service and write and give oral reports on the dangers of their crimes and their rehabilitation. If Alexander approves, their convictions are overturned and expunged from their records.


Facing Defeat

Runs in a primary to be the Republican candidate for chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Facing racism that persists in the state, she loses the election to a white man without a law degree who works as a fire safety equipment salesman.


New Chapters

Steps down from the bench and returns to private practice after marrying John D. Ralston, a white retired IRS officer, in 1979.


End of an Era

Retires from the legal profession. Alexander is honored with the unveiling of her portrait in Courtroom 2A of the Guilford County Courthouse, which is renamed for her.


Remembering an Icon

Dies at age 78. Her obituary in the Greensboro News & Record says, “Her influence will be felt for years,” and she will be “remembered most for her style, words, and humor in Guilford County courtrooms.”

Headshot of Judge Elreta Alexander

“Every case to me was a civil rights case.”
—Judge Elreta Melton Alexander

Images: (top) Courtesy of Elreta Alexander Collection, MSS 223, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (left) Judge Elreta Alexander when she ran for North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice in 1974. Courtesy of the Carolina Peacemaker.