2021 Legal Legends of Color Award Honorees


By Gwendolyn W. Lewis

Impact breeds more impact. For six years now, the Legal Legends of Color Awards have highlighted the lives and careers of some of the most impactful attorneys of color in our state. Their contributions, lives, careers, and stories have impacted not only the clients and communities they have served or still serve, but also the attorneys who have followed in their footsteps. Many of those attorneys have now become legends themselves. The impact of a Legend is endless, and this year, with record registration numbers totaling two hundred and fifty-one, we were honored to elevate through video and virtual presentations the stories of a new class of legends. At the 123rd North Carolina Bar Association Annual Meeting and the sixth annual Legal Legends of Color Awards Celebration, we welcomed the following honorees into a distinguished and growing list of Legal Legends of Color:

  • Professor James E. Coleman Jr.
  • Judge Wanda Bryant
  • Attorney Karen Bethea-Shields
  • Attorney Julian Pierce (posthumously)
  • Judge Elreta Melton Alexander (posthumously)

Judge Elreta Melton Alexander (posthumously)

(1919 -1998)

Image courtesy of UNC Greensboro Special Collections and University Archives.

Judge Alexander was the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1945 and within two years became the first Black woman to practice law in the state of North Carolina in 1947. Her hometown was Greensboro, and that is where she developed her career and where she ran for District Court judge in 1968. With a victorious election, she became the first Black female judge in North Carolina and the first in the country to be an elected District Court judge. During her tenure she created and became known for her “Judgment Day” program aimed at rehabilitating young, first-time offenders – a forerunner of modern juvenile deferred sentencing programs. Judge Alexander is remembered for many things, including her willingness to combat segregation and the silencing of underrepresented voices in a southern legal system.

During the Legal Legends of Color Awards Celebration video presentation, Dr. Virginia Summey, Judge Alexander’s biographer and historian, described her career as “pioneering,” and her niece, Dr. Lena Melton, expressed her happiness that Judge Alexander’s contributions have been recognized so that Judge Alexander may “never be forgotten.”

Attorney Julian Pierce (posthumously)


Julian Pierce was born in Moore County on January 2, 1946, to sharecroppers. He was a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe. At sixteen, Julian Pierce graduated as valedictorian from Hawkeye High School, and with a full scholarship, attended the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and worked as a chemist where he ultimately developed an award-winning chemical process for decontamination of nuclear reactors.

As a second career, Mr. Pierce attended North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1973 and graduated in 1976. He began his career with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., and simultaneously earned his Master of Laws in taxation from Georgetown School of Law.

In 1978, he returned to his Lumbee community as the first director of the Lumbee River Legal Services, a poverty law office in Pembroke. For ten years, he worked at Lumbee River Legal Services to raise the standard of legal care for poor citizens of Robeson County.

His contributions are numerous. He was pivotal in eliminating gerrymandering that led to the merging of a tri-school board system into a one-school board system in the county so that all children could receive equal educational funding. He partnered with others to submit the first petition to the U.S. Department of Interior for federal recognition of the Lumbee tribe with benefits, which had been long denied. The petition was submitted and rejected in 1987; after that time, there were several recognition bills filed in Congress that were unsuccessful.

In 1988, the North Carolina General Assembly created a new Superior Court judgeship in Robeson County and Joe Freeman Britt, the county’s district attorney, announced his candidacy. District Attorney Britt was in the Guinness Book Of World Records for being “the Deadliest Prosecutor.” Most of those he helped be sentenced to death row were people of color.

Julian Pierce resigned from his position as Director of Lumbee River Legal Services to campaign against District Attorney Britt and to investigate community rumors of drug trafficking involving local law enforcement. Sadly, on March 26, 1988, just a few weeks before the election, Mr. Pierce was murdered in his home at the age of forty-two.

In the aftermath, District Attorney Britt was automatically declared the winner of the primary election, though a count of the votes determined Mr. Pierce won the vote posthumously – 10,787 to 8,231. It has been thirty-three years since his death, and his legacy remains strong in North Carolina, with people of color and namely Lumbee people obtaining powerful and meaningful roles in the communities that formerly denied them those opportunities.

During the Legal Legends of Color Awards Celebration video presentation, attorney Julia Pierce, Julian Pierce’s daughter, shared gratitude on behalf of her family and expressed that she believes her father’s advice for the attorneys who may follow in his footsteps would be “to be brave” and if you experience failure “not to worry about it – learn from it. It’s far more important that you’re able to get back up and try again, even if you fail, than it is to worry about your failure.”

Attorney Karen Bethea-Shields


Attorney Karen Bethea-Shields earned her law degree in 1974 from Duke University School of Law. She was one of the first three African American women students to graduate from the law school. She began her practice in criminal law and her first case was State v. Joan Little, later known as “The Trial of the Century,” where she successfully defended a young African American woman on trial for murdering an abusive jailor. Her client became the first woman in United States history to be acquitted using the defense that deadly force was used to resist sexual assault. In 1980, Karen Bethea-Shields became the first woman to be elected to a judgeship in Durham County, totaling just two African American women in the North Carolina judiciary at that time. After her judgeship ended in 1985, attorney Karen Bethea-Shields returned to practice and remains dedicated to the service of her community and the practice of law.

During the Legal Legends of Color Awards Celebration video presentation, when asked what remains unfinished in her work, attorney Bethea-Shields replied, “making sure our justice system really becomes just for everyone.”

Judge Wanda G. Bryant


Judge Wanda G. Bryant received her B.A. degree from Duke University and her law degree from North Carolina Central University. She began her legal career serving as the first female and first African American prosecutor in the 13th Prosecutorial District in eastern North Carolina. She also was the first staff attorney for the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., and prior to taking her judicial oath of office, she served as Senior Deputy Attorney General in the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, where she led the newly created Citizens’ Rights Division. The Citizens’ Rights Division oversaw the advocacy and protection of interests of citizens in a variety of areas, including victims’ rights, child and elder abuse, hate crimes, domestic violence, open government, health care and consumer protection. Judge Bryant also served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C., where she focused on the prosecution of child and adult sexual assault cases.

With extensive experience and a vast knowledge of varied areas of law, Judge Bryant was appointed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in February 2001 and was successfully elected in November 2004 and in 2012. She recently retired from the bench.

During the Legal Legends of Color Awards Celebration video presentation, when asked what work or words of advice she would impart to attorneys of color practicing in North Carolina, she responded, “I would tell them to use my motto of being polite but firm . . . it’s important to be a fierce advocate for whoever your client is. That’s always important, I think. As African American attorneys we have to again realize that we are somewhat constrained by our heritage, by the way in which other people look at us, judge us. We can’t let that stop us, but we have to work through that. Again, I think the motto of being polite but firm helps with that.”

Professor James E. Coleman Jr.


Professor James (Jim) Coleman earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1974 and his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University in 1970. He joined Duke University School of Law’s full-time faculty in 1996 and is currently the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, Director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, and Co-Director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic. He is a native of Charlotte, and his legal career extends beyond North Carolina.

He practiced for fifteen years in private practice in Washington, D.C., serving twelve of those years as a partner in his firm. His practice specialized in federal court and administrative litigation and representation of criminal defendants in capital collateral proceedings. Professor Coleman’s career also includes a range of government experience, including positions as an assistant general counsel for the Legal Services Corporation, chief counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education.

Through volunteer roles with the American Bar Association, he served as Chair of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and of the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, and has served on various state commissions focused on wrongful convictions, the death penalty, and criminal justice.

During the Legal Legends of Color Awards Celebration video presentation, when asked what advice he would offer majority attorneys practicing alongside attorneys of color, he stated “not to be indifferent . . . the thing that is the greatest obstacle to the success of lawyers of color, in majority law firms, or government agencies or whatever, is that they become isolated and cut off from the work of whatever the organization is.” He also went on to explain the word he would use to describe his legal career as a whole: “accountability – because I think that that’s our ultimate obligation as a lawyer, is to hold people accountable . . . to hold judges, to hold prosecutors, to hold elected officials accountable, and that’s what I’ve tried to do and that’s what I’ll continue to do as long as I’m active.”

Each of this year’s 2021 Legends have shaped the law in North Carolina and contributed immeasurably to their respective communities and our state. The event was generously sponsored by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism and legal software company Clio. Together, we applaud the accomplishments and legacies of attorneys of color. The Minorities in the Profession Committee of the North Carolina Bar Association, through this annual event, will continue to celebrate attorney of color contributions with this prestigious award and, in turn, hopes to motivate others to continue to the work that will indeed make an impact.

Gwendolyn W. Lewis is an Employment & Civil Litigation attorney at Lincoln Derr PLLC. View her full bio at: https://lincolnderr.com/gwendolyn-lewis/.