ELLERBE — A bridge on Green Lake Road named in honor of former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry E. Frye overlooks the land he was raised on.
A sign was placed at the site prior to an unveiling ceremony at the Ellerbe Fire Station on Tuesday.
Frye, who now lives in Greensboro, grew up working a farm in Ellerbe where Interstate 73 now sits and went on to achieve many firsts for a black man in North Carolina.
He graduated high school first in his class, graduated with honors from North Carolina A&T State University, joined the U.S. Air Force where rose to the rank of captain — yet returned to home to register to vote and was denied because he failed the required literacy test infamous for its racial bias.
This inspired him to study law and Frye later became the first African-American elected to the state House of Representatives in the 20th century and the first African-American to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In his speech at the ceremony, Frye encouraged those in attendance to rise above the negativity in the world and present better ideas rather than look to direct blame. He quoted American writer Anthony D’Angelo who said, “Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.”
“Lift the conversation, be positive, be encouragers,” Frye implored the crowd.
His family filled nearly the entire first three rows — though he said if the invitations had gone out sooner, there wouldn’t be any room left.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Frye said. “I don’t have too many friends with a bridge.”
The honor was the result of a year of work by the Mineral Springs Improvement Council to raise the money and complete the series of steps required by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Brenda Capel, a member of the council, said it started when her cousin saw Frye at an event and, surprised that he was an Ellerbe native, asked if the town had done anything to honor him.
“I believe in giving people flowers while they’re alive so they can smell the roses,” Capel said.
While driving over the previously unnamed bridge just outside of downtown Ellerbe one day, and knowing where Frye grew up, she thought, “Bingo!”
“We wanted to do something nice for someone from Ellerbe who had accomplished so much,” said Annie Buie, president of the Mineral Springs Improvement Council who also went to school with Frye.
Gov. Roy Cooper was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. He said that Frye is an example of a leader who can bring people together rather than divide them and credited the jurist with showing him that a state government ought to “look like the people it serves.”
“When you drive across that bridge, you can remember not only the support of (Frye’s) family, but also what he represents: that diversity is our strength,” he said.
Cooper’s administration is likely the most diverse of any North Carolina governor with at least 40 percent African-Americans and at least 30 percent women, according to the News & Observer.
Richmond County Commissioner Thad Ussery, an Ellerbe native, also spoke at the ceremony. Ussery said that the more he studies Frye’s life, “the more proud I am that he’s from Ellerbe.”
“His life has been a bridge, making it easier for others to follow him,” Ussery said. “My philosophy is that if you don’t leave something better than you found it, then it’s better you didn’t pass this way at all. Well, we’re glad Justice Frye passed this way.”
Bishop Arlester Simpson, vice president of the Mineral Springs Improvement Council, noted that the man Frye is now isn’t who he always was.
“What we see is the finished product,” Simpson said. “But we didn’t see the struggle.”
A handful of Richmond County leaders were present at the event.
State Sen. Tom McInnis said he was “very honored to recognize one of Ellerbe’s most famous sons.” McInnis noted that there have only been two state senators from Ellerbe, himself and Frye.
Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons said of the event, “It’s a great day for Richmond County to recognize one of their own.”
“Hopefully, if young people see the sign, they’ll go on the internet or Facebook and see (what I’ve accomplished) and think, ‘I can do that too,’” Frye said. “I hope I can be an inspiration.”
When asked where he would put the sign used in the ceremony, which is his to keep — the real one marking the bridge had been unveiled earlier in the afternoon — Frye said, “I don’t know, the basement or something.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]