Mecklenburg County Bar Centennial Celebration
Article Date: Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Written By: Mark W. Merritt and Hon. Shirley L. Fulton
January 2012 marked the Centennial anniversary of the Mecklenburg County Bar (MCB). The MCB, which began with one lone lawyer in a colonial backwater community in 1769, has grown into a community of more than 4,400 professional members. Many of those members participate on one or more of the 70+ committees, subcommittees, task forces, sections, boards and divisions of the MCB.
Our goal of the MCB’s Centennial Celebration, which began in January and will wrap up in December 2012, is to honor every attorney in Mecklenburg County—both past and present—that has contributed to the 100+ years of history. We want to acknowledge that every attorney’s accomplishments have helped create and shape what the MCB has become today. It is a Celebration of attorneys as a whole — their lives as volunteers, as courtroom advocates and as skilled, knowledgeable citizens who contribute and add to the value of our community.
The Centennial Celebration kicked off in January 2012 at the Levine Museum of the New South with the unveiling of Picturing the Past: A History of the Mecklenburg County Bar. This exhibit was created to honor the past, present and future of the MCB. The exhibit highlighted the many components of the Bar and included a timeline of memorable events and facts in the MCB’s history, including little known facts such as the completion of the first Mecklenburg County courthouse took place in 1768 and the first female president of the MCB, Carrie L. McLean, took office in 1925—just five years after women were allowed to vote in the United States. The exhibit also highlighted Mecklenburg County as the home to several famous trials, including the well-known Swann v. Board of Education which began an era of school busing to ensure racial balance in nearly every city in the United States.
The exhibit put a spotlight on many of our legal pioneers in the MCB. Without pioneers such as John S. Leary and Julia McGehee Alexander, diversity within Mecklenburg County’s legal profession would not be as robust as it is today. John S. Leary, in 1892, became the first African American attorney to practice law in Mecklenburg County. He protested racial segregation and discriminatory practices throughout his life. In February 1977, the Charlotte Chapter of the NC Association of Black Lawyers named its chapter in honor of John S. Leary. In 1914, Julia McGehee Alexander was the first woman to pass the NC Bar exam from Mecklenburg County and was the first woman attorney to address a jury and to argue and win a case in both Mecklenburg Superior Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court. Thanks to groundbreaking efforts of attorneys like John S. Leary and Julia McGehee Alexander, more than 400 African-American attorneys practice law in Mecklenburg County and more than half of all newly licensed attorneys are women. Mecklenburg County is home to the Charlotte Women’s Bar, the Mecklenburg Asian Pacific American Bar and the Hispanic Latino Lawyers Bar, whose membership includes Hon. Albert Diaz, the first judge of Hispanic descent to be appointed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Picturing the Past will be permanently installed in the future Mecklenburg Bar and Foundation Center, which is currently being identified, to be displayed for the next 100 years for all Mecklenburg County Bar attorneys to see.
Our first Centennial event was the unveiling of Picturing the Past: A History of the Mecklenburg County Bar on Jan. 18, 2012 at a Preview Party. More than 70 guests got a sneak-peek of the highly-anticipated exhibit. The following evening, Jan. 19, 2012, we held an opening reception of Picturing the Past where more than 400 guests, including MCB members, their families and guests attended. Honored guests included North Carolina judges from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker.
On Jan. 20, 2012, Judges Albert Diaz, Allyson K. Duncan and James A. Wynn Jr. of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard three appeals in the Robert D. Potter Courtroom of the Charles R. Jonas Federal Building in conjunction with the Bar’s Centennial Celebration. Bar members and students filled the courtroom to capacity.
The premier event of the MCB’s Centennial Celebration was the black-tie Centennial Gala, which took place in the Grand Ballroom of the Westin Hotel on Feb. 16, 2012. More than 600 judges, attorneys and guests were in attendance. The Mecklenburg Bar Revue delighted the audience with musical parodies of local attorneys and the legal profession as a whole. The former acting U.S. Solicitor General Walter E. Dellinger III provided an insightful, humorous, heartfelt and altogether enjoyable keynote address. His presence helped shape the evening, and we continue to be thankful for his attendance. Our musical entertainment was provided by Groovetown, and the sight of so many attorneys on a dance floor was great entertainment in and of itself. Not only was the evening entertaining, but it also was an opportunity to celebrate the many contributions and achievements of our MCB membership throughout our 100 years. The Gala gave different sections of the MCB a chance to interact with and enjoy their colleagues in a festive and impressive setting.
One of the most highly-anticipated events of the Centennial year was the release of the MCB history book, An Independent Profession: A Centennial History of the Mecklenburg County Bar, written by Pulitzer-Prize winning authors Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis and edited by the MCB’s own E. Osborne Ayscue Jr. The authors released signed copies of the book on March 21 at the Levine Museum of the New South. More than 100 MCB members were in attendance to receive early copies of An Independent Profession: A History of the Mecklenburg County Bar. The Bar History Committee Co-chairs Ray S. Farris and Mark R. Bernstein provided remarks about the book’s origins and creation. The authors provided insights into the writing of the Bar history, and editor E. Osborne “Ozzie” Ayscue, Jr. moderated an intriguing and insightful panel discussion. In April, every member of the Mecklenburg County Bar received a complimentary copy of An Independent Profession thanks to the tremendous generosity of many Mecklenburg County attorneys and law firms. The goal of An Independent Profession: A History of the Mecklenburg County Bar is to reconnect Mecklenburg County attorneys to their past and instill a sense of pride in the role that lawyers have played in shaping our community and profession. It will allow both present and future attorneys to appreciate the legacy which is now theirs to carry forward.
Our Centennial Celebration also celebrated the key role that attorneys play in giving back to the Mecklenburg community at large. The MCB wanted to acknowledge the incredible number of volunteer projects, pro bono hours and community service efforts MCB attorneys make each day and to recognize these ongoing efforts during the Centennial Celebration. The month of April, coined the Celebration of Community Service, was launched to showcase the role of lawyers as volunteers. The MCB had many projects in place in which attorneys could participate, and there were countless other projects and organizations with which Mecklenburg County Bar attorneys volunteered their time during April. The Bar’s 1,000 hour goal was surpassed by the commitment of 43 law firms and groups and more than 500 individual attorney-volunteers. The Celebration of Community Service successfully highlighted the role of lawyers as volunteers and their service to Mecklenburg Community in conjunction with the Centennial year.
We hope that the MCB Centennial Celebration, a once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity, will be remembered for the next 100 years. We have received wonderful feedback on all of the events and have enjoyed reflecting on the past, celebrating the present and looking forward to the future of this organization. Within the MCB, we thank all of the attorneys for were part of creating such a great history, and our goal is to build on that history as a committed group of professionals as we proceed into the 21st century. We can only hope that we advance as much as we have from that time in 1769 when a single lawyer in a village with no more than 200 citizens began the practice of law in Mecklenburg County. •
The Honorable Shirley L. Fulton is a former Senior Resident Superior Court Judge who currently practices with Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, PLLC in Charlotte. Shirley may be reached at SFulton@
Mark W. Merritt of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A in Charlotte covers a broad range of business-related litigation. Mark may be reached at MMerritt@RBH.com.
Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.