Shirley Fulton, a trailblazing judge in Charlotte and across North Carolina, has died.

Shirley Fulton, a trailblazing judge in Charlotte and across North Carolina, has died.

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Longtime Mecklenburg County Judge Shirley Fulton, the first Black woman to win a Superior Court seat in North Carolina, died Wednesday morning.

The cause of death: complications from gall bladder cancer.

Fulton, whose influence stretched from the courthouse to a decades-long list of significant community endeavors, was 71.

At different points during her legal career, the Kingstree, S.C., native worked as an assistant Mecklenburg County district attorney, a District Court judge, a Superior Court judge and a law professor.

For 14 years she served as Senior Resident Superior Court judge, the most powerful judicial seat in the Mecklenburg courthouse. Once again Fulton made history by being the first Black woman in North Carolina to hold the job.

Shirley Fulton.jpg
Michael Shane Neal’s 2004 portrait of former Judge Shirley Fulton hangs in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. Fulton, the first Black woman in North Carolina ever elected to a Superior Court seat, has died. She was 71. Michael Shane Neal

After leaving the bench in 2002, Fulton went into private practice. But she continued to throw herself into highly public community initiatives — from reforms in the courts to public housing and local schools.

She served as president of Queen City Congress, a coalition of inner city neighborhoods, and was former board chair of the Charlotte Housing Authority.

In 2015, she re-donned her judicial robes to preside over a mock grand jury hearing in Raleigh to consider “indicting” Republican legislators who had voted to block the expansion of Medicaid, the major form of federal health assistance for low-income families.

“She was an absolute gem for this community and this court system,” said Carla Archie, the county’s current senior resident judge, and the first Black woman since Fulton to serve in that role.

“She has touched so many people and so many institutions, and she left such an incredible imprint.”

Shirley Fulton held several leadership roles in Charlotte and across the state.

Fulton’s activism was often spontaneous. After reading in The Charlotte Observer about how a school near her home was plagued by an achievement gap, Fulton showed up at the principal’s office that same day and quickly formed a student-mentoring program that included her friends.

Her career path was rarely a traditional one. As a girl in South Carolina, she and her siblings picked cotton and tobacco before the school bell. She was a one-time college drop-out, and a single mom of a toddler son when she began law classes at North Carolina Central and Duke.

In 2007, when the Observer asked her to name an essential mentor in her life, she did not pick a law professor or fellow judge.

Instead, Fulton chose Virgil Dimery, a funeral home operator from her tiny S.C. hometown, 75 miles northwest of Charleston. Dimery gave her a job during high school, took her to political rallies, presented her with her first dictionary (which Fulton still had at the time), and drove her to Greensboro for her first day of college. He died during Fulton’s second year of law school.

“He wanted me to return to Kingstree to set up a practice. I decided it wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Fulton told the Observer at the time.

“I think Mr. Dimery would have understood. He led me beyond Kingstree.”

Fulton took it from there.

Mary Howerton, the first executive director of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association and a friend for almost 40 years, says Fulton saw Charlotte and the world with a different eye, whether it was starting Spanish classes for Mecklenburg judges to better serve the mushrooming Latino community or purchasing and restoring the Wadsworth House in the Wesley Heights neighborhood, which she turned into an event and meeting center for the city’s underserved west side.

“Shirley had this brain that would look at possibilities that no one else would even think about,” Howerton said.

“She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t pound on the table. She didn’t present herself as important or accomplished. She was just in the room, and when she was in the room, you just knew something was going to happen.”

‘I want to be a judge’

Fulton was born on Jan. 2, 1952, the second of five children. Her father, Jacob Fulton, was a farm laborer.

She attended a segregated elementary school in rural Williamsburg County, S.C., with two rooms — one held grades 1-3, the other, 4-6. She developed a habit of following her instructors as they switched classes and heard what they were teaching the older students.

When Fulton finished third grade, she was promoted to 5th. She was 16 when she entered college at North Carolina A&T.

She started law school at N.C. Central in 1977, the same year that Kevin Goode, her son from a brief marriage, entered kindergarten. She transferred after one year to Duke, where between classes, she clerked at a Durham law firm to earn money.

Goode, now 50 and living in Raleigh, said his mother often took him along to the Duke campus. When she was attending classes, Goode says he was bumming quarters from law students to play the video game Space Invaders in the school lounge, telling his marks, “My mother will pay you back.”

“She was my first super hero,” Goode recalls. “Other kids were talking about the Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman. I was talking about my mother. The probability of her making it to where she got is astounding.

“… She had an amazing ability to give everything she had when she had nothing left to give. She used to tell me, ‘Live your life. Do your best by people. Be patient, and listen.’ She could really listen.

“Mom was the best of the best, even when times were hard.”

After graduating from Duke, Fulton came to Charlotte in 1982 to serve as Mecklenburg County’s first ever Black female prosecutor under District Attorney Peter Gilchrist.

Gilchrist, now retired and living in Maine, hired Fulton after making what he says was the only campaign promise of his 36-year career: to add Black prosecutors to what was then an all-white roster.

During the job interview, Gilchrist said he asked Fulton where she wanted to be in 10 years.

“I want to be a judge,” she told him.

In 1987, Fulton got her foot inside the courthouse door when she was appointed to fill a bench vacancy in District Court.

A year later, she made N.C. history by winning election to a Superior Court seat.

In the 1990s, as senior resident judge, Fulton twice battled breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and a stem cell transplant in 1995. A year later she came back to work full-time.

After her return, the courthouse began work on what would eventually be called “the Fulton Plan,” a system-wide reform effort to make the handling of criminal cases not only more efficient but more racially equitable as well.

A career-long progressive, Fulton nonetheless sentenced three convicted killers to death, which she later said forced her to examine what she believed.

“Those trials made me reflect on my Biblical upbringing,” she told the Observer after announcing her retirement. “Growing up a Baptist, I was taught I should not sit in judgment.

“… Who am I to sentence someone to die?”

No slow-down in retirement

After retirement, Fulton went into private practice, eventually becoming a founding partner in Tin Fulton Walker and Owen, now one of the most influential progressive law firms in the state.

She later created Fulton Consulting, an alternative dispute resolution firm, and last practiced with the Singletary Law Firm in Charlotte.

“She had a passion for improving the lives of people who came to her for help, which was pretty much all the time,” said Noell Tin, her former law partner. “For all her awards and prestige, you never had to worry about Shirley losing sight of her values.

“And we made each other laugh. That made working together that much better.”

Fulton’s civic accomplishments were many: co-chair of the United Agenda for Children in Mecklenburg County; past president of both the county bar association and the Law and Community Foundation.

Fulton partnered with the former Charlotte School of Law to provide scholarships to needy students, organized legal clinics for under-served parts of the city, and worked with Howerton to create a nonprofit that provided leadership training for women.

All the while, she served as a role model and mentor for the next generation of Black women who were practicing law.

“For a young lawyer, she was an enormous figure, probably more than she ever felt,” says Archie, who practiced in Fulton’s court as an assistant district attorney before being elected a judge in 2014. Archie became senior resident seven years later.

“I never dreamed I would be sitting where I am now, but Judge Fulton was the first person I called.”

Fulton went under hospice care late last month, and friends and family regularly gathered at her bedside to visit and reminisce.

Gilchrist called from Maine, about 10 days before her death. He says he told his longtime colleague and friend that something bigger than fate had brought her to Charlotte.

“It was the Lord’s hand,” Gilchrist said he told Fulton.

“You have been a success for me. You have been a success in your own right. You had an impact throughout this community.

“You have been a success for all of us.”

This story was originally published February 8, 2023, 8:35 AM.

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Michael Gordon has been the Observer’s legal affairs writer since 2013. He has been an editor and reporter at the paper since 1992, occasionally writing about schools, religion, politics and sports. He spent two summers as “Bikin Mike,” filing stories as he pedaled across the Carolinas.

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