Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of History

Committee Chair

Anya Jabour


African American, civil rights, colorism, Columbia University, domestic violence, Greensboro, Jim Crow, judge, law, North Carolina, racism, rape, sexism, women


University of Montana


Elreta Melton Alexander (1919 – 1998) was a pioneering African-American attorney from Greensboro, North Carolina. Coming of age during the Jim Crow period of the South, she was the daughter of a Baptist minister and a teacher and grew up comfortably as a part of the black middle class. The descendant of two white grandparents, her bi-racialism formed her early awareness of colorism within the African-American community. Alexander received her Bachelor of Arts from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University before going on to become the first African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1945. In 1947, she became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the North Carolina bar. Her husband, Dr. Girardeau “Tony” Alexander was a prominent surgeon at L. Richardson Hospital, the segregated hospital for African Americans in Greensboro. Their marriage, which lasted thirty years, was often troubled with domestic violence, infidelity, and alcoholism being the primary factors. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1968. After establishing her practice in Greensboro, Alexander became a successful attorney. In 1964, she defended Charles Yoes, who stood with three other men accused of raping a white woman, Mary Lou Marion. The trail went on to become the longest criminal trial in Guilford County court history at the time and changed the county’s jury selection procedures. In 1968, Alexander became the first African-American woman to become an elected district court judge. During her tenure she created the controversial Judgment Day program, aimed at rehabilitating young, first-time offenders. In 1974, Alexander ran for North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice, losing in the Republican primary to James Newcomb, a white, fire-extinguisher salesman. Newcomb went on to lose to Democrat Susie Sharp, who became the first elected female state Supreme Court chief justice in the country. Alexander’s loss prompted changes to North Carolina judicial election requirements. Through it all, Alexander remained devoted to her only son, Girardeau, III, who suffered from schizophrenia. While not a well-known figure in the Civil Rights Movement, this thesis contends Alexander dedicated her career to civil rights and challenging the status quo of the segregationist South.



© Copyright 2012 Virginia Lyndsay Summey