Honoring Judge Elreta Alexander ’45, the First Black Woman to Graduate From Columbia Law

Alexander’s biographer and an alumni panel moderated by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw discuss the pioneering judge’s law school days and her legacy as the first Black woman in North Carolina to practice law, to argue before its Supreme Court, and to be elected a judge.

For decades, Judge Elreta Alexander’s trailblazing role as the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School and her extraordinary career as a litigator and jurist were not well-known beyond North Carolina courthouses. But at a special Alumni of Color event on December 9, more than 200 alumni, students, faculty, staff, and members of the judiciary gathered virtually to celebrate Alexander’s life and legacy. (Watch the full event above.)

“Elreta Alexander, Class of 1945, is someone, I will admit, I knew little about until earlier this year,” said Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, in her opening remarks. She noted that the current national reawakening on the urgency of confronting racism and racial inequality made honoring  the judge’s legacy timely. As a pioneering student Alexander “felt the weight of the future of Black women at Columbia on her shoulders,” said Dean Lester. “Later, after many years of practicing law in North Carolina, she became a judge, and she continued in that role as a force for justice, for innovation, and for healing in her community.”

Following an introduction by George Madison ’80, who helped establish Columbia Law’s Alumni of Color initiative in 2016, North Carolina historian Virginia L. Summey presented an overview of Alexander’s life. Summey’s biography of Alexander, based on her Ph.D. dissertation, Fighting Within the Bar: Judge Elreta Alexander and Civil Rights Advocacy in Greensboro, North Carolina, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in 2021.

Campaign poster with text and photograph of Elreta Melton Alexander in dark jacket and circle pin
Photo courtesy of UNC Greensboro Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives

Kimberlé Crenshaw, Isidore and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, then led a discussion on the enduring significance of Alexander’s many firsts as well as on diversity within the judiciary today. The distinguished panel included L. Priscilla Hall ’73, associate justice, Appellate Division, Second Department, New York State Supreme Court (2009–2018); James E.C. Perry ’72, a former justice of the Florida Supreme Court (2009–2016); and Andrea Saavedra ’06, assistant dean and dean of judicial clerkships.

A Civil Rights Pioneer

Summey recounted how Alexander was inspired to become a lawyer because she was disillusioned by local politics in Greensboro, where she attended high school and college. Despite growing up in the Jim Crow South, Alexander became more aware of racial issues as a student at Columbia Law, when she discovered that she sometimes unwittingly passed as white. Alexander, Summey said, remarked that her Columbia friends “couldn’t seem to understand how this girl, with so many talents and such fair skin . . . could be identified with Negros.” Indeed, while in school, Alexander “decided to really embrace her Blackness and use that position as an advocate for other African Americans, particularly African American women,” according to Summey. 

Judge Elreta Alexander in sleeveless dress sitting at an elegant desk
Alexander was known in Greensboro for her style. Photo courtesy of UNC Greensboro Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives

When she returned to Greensboro in 1947 to practice law, Alexander quickly developed a reputation for a dramatic courtroom style, which Summey describes as “performance activism.” In front of judges in segregated courthouses, Alexander would say, “I’m going to see what the difference is between this white water and this colored water,” and defiantly drink from the white fountain. In courtrooms, she would sometimes sit in the colored section, which caused judges to squirm. When they insisted that she come up to the bar, where the white attorneys were seated, she would reply, “I’m just following the rule of law."

As a litigator, Alexander exposed racial bias in the jury selection process, which led to changes in how jurors were chosen in North Carolina. As a judge, she instituted the progressive Judgment Day program for juvenile offenders: Instead of sentencing them to jail, she allowed them to perform community service and write essays about their crimes and rehabilitation to have criminal charges expunged from their records. (Read more about Alexander’s life and career below.)

Recognizing a Trailblazer

To provide historical context for Alexander’s momentous and overdue firsts, Crenshaw noted that it was 1882 when the first Black man, John Daniel Lewis, graduated from the Law School, and 1929 when the first woman, Margaret Spahr, graduated. Crenshaw asked the panelists to consider the intersectional challenges faced by the first Black woman to graduate from the Law School. She emphasized that the barriers Alexander broke are meaningful “not only as an individual narrative of accomplishment, but also for the lessons and interventions that their pathbreaking makes legible for all those who come behind,” she said. 

Judge Elreta Alexander in black judge's robe behind the bench in a courtroom
Alexander presiding in her courtroom. Photo courtesy of UNC Greensboro Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives

Perry related that he knew firsthand how difficult North Carolina made it for African Americans to pass the state’s bar: When he graduated from Columbia Law in 1972, he was told that he had to wait 27 months to apply to take the bar exam because of rules that seemed designed to keep African Americans out of the profession, he said, “because we would be good advocates for our people.” Perry said it “took a lot of guts” for Alexander to overcome North Carolina’s discriminatory requirements for taking the bar exam 25 years earlier.

In preparation for the discussion, Hall, who has worked to diversify the New York judiciary, interviewed three people Alexander mentored: two judges and a Greensboro attorney. Her mentees, Hall said, described Alexander as “absolutely brilliant, passionate, visionary, savvy, courageous, kind, a tremendous trial attorney, witty, wise, dignified. 

“She was shrewd, had a total recall memory, and the most comprehensive knowledge of the law, plus street sense, and would effortlessly weave quotations from the law, the Bible, and Shakespeare into her arguments in court.”

Columbia Law history buffs may be more familiar with the second Black woman to graduate from the Law School, Judge Constance Baker Motley ’46—who became a national figure as the principal trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the first Black woman to be appointed to the federal bench—than they are with Alexander. Saavedra said it’s necessary for the Columbia Law community to consider why Alexander has not been part of the Law School’s narrative history until now. “It’s very important that the faculty and our alumni have come and said, ‘Let’s have this conversation,’” said Saavedra. “I think it took a unique combination of a historian [Summey] who really dedicated a large portion of her career to uncovering this story and then to all the people in between who really believed that it was something that needed to be shared.”

The Alumni of Color network has a responsibility to share stories so “we do not lose them,” said Saavedra, adding that it’s imperative that all members of the Columbia Law community “know about the accomplishments of our Justice Ginsburgs as well as our Judge Alexanders.”


About the Alumni of Color Initiative

The Alumni of Color initiative was established in 2016 under the leadership of Dean Gillian Lester and George Madison ’80. Through annual events with alumni speakers, the Alumni of Color committee works to build community and celebrate the accomplishments of alumni of color. As part of the initiative and with support from alumni, the Law School has established the Eric H. Holder Jr. Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition support to students of color.

Judge Elreta Alexander

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

1919

Childhood

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.

1931

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).

1938

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.)

1943

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.)

1944

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.

1947

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. 

1948

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.” 

1950

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.

1955

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.

1964

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.

1966

An Integrated Firm

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

1967

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

1968

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.

1969

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.

1974

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.

1981

New Chapters

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

1995

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.

1998

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.”