It’s Man POWER Monday! And…It’s BLACK HISTORY MONTH! I couldn’t imagine kicking off this month without featuring none other than the First African-American Resident Superior Court Judge in the State of North Carolina, The Honorable Cy A. Grant Sr. Cy A. Grant Sr. a.k.a. Judge Grant is my Man POWER Monday pick because he has “judicial” swag.
Raised by his grandmother in the Indian Woods community of Bertie County, North Carolina, Cy A. Grant Sr. graduated from Bertie Senior High School in 1973 and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University in 1977. After working for a year as an Assistant Local Government Coordinator with the Mid-East Regional Planning Agency, Cy decided to apply to law school. Accepted into UNC School of Law and NCCU School of Law, Cy decided to remain in the environment where he felt more comfortable and went on to successfully complete law school at the NCCU School of Law in 1981.
Upon graduation from law school, Cy A. Grant Sr. worked as a judicial law clerk for The Honorable Richard C. Erwin, Federal District Court Judge for the Middle District of North Carolina. As a clerk, Cy served as the Federal Judge’s personal attorney, doing his legal research, writing legal opinions, and providing advice when needed. After clerking with the Federal Judge for approximately fourteen months,Cy returned to eastern North Carolina where he became the first African-American Assistant District Attorney in the Sixth Judicial District. After two years as an Assistant District Attorney Cy, his wife, Rosiland, and Attorney W. Rob Lewis, formed the law firm of Grant, Lewis & Grant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. On January 1, 1989 Cy A. Grant Sr. was sworn in as the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for District 6B, the first African-American to hold this position in the State of North Carolina.
Years ago I was working on a project and had an opportunity to ask Judge Grant a number of questions about his life. I wondered if anything from the civil rights era impacted him in any significant way. He shared the following:
In 1966 or 1967, I was 11 or 12 years old, black people in Bertie County, where I was reared, boycotted the white businesses in Windsor, NC. Windsor was the largest town in the county. They boycotted because the County Board of Commissioners had refused to allow a federally funded government food program to come to the county that would have helped many blacks living there. As part of the boycott, black people would hold peaceful demonstrations in the town by marching through the small town of Windsor, carrying signs and singing the movement songs of that time. The marches primarily occurred in the evenings after 6pm, and were comprised of mostly women and children. Several people with pickup trucks would drive to certain locations in the county and pick up children ranging in age from about 10 to 18 and bring them to a building in Windsor located about ½ mile from downtown Windsor. The building was named the Home Demonstration Building. This is where most of the civil rights meetings took place. We would leave there and march through the downtown business district of Windsor, and end our march at the front door of the Bertie County Courthouse. Usually, there would be a minister marching with us. The courthouse was closed because it was after hours, but we would all kneel down on and around the steps to front door of the courthouse and the minister would pray for justice for all people.
During this time the courthouse was a place of segregation. Inside there were separate drinking fountains labeled “White” and “Colored”. Black people could only sit in a certain designated area in the courtroom. There were not restroom facilities for black people inside the courthouse. The restroom facilities for black people were in a building behind the courthouse. I remember that as one walked up to the building there was always a strong foul odor because the bathrooms were rarely, if ever, cleaned.
What’s significant to me is that I once knelt and prayed outside the front door of courthouse for justice, and now I’m the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for this county with the keys in my pocket to that very same front door. It vividly reminds me just how far black people have progressed.
Judge Grant also shared the significant influence his grandmother, Helen Cooper, had on his development. Remembering her as one of the sweetest, kindest, and most giving persons he ever knew, Judge Grant said:
My grandmother had a strong sense of right and wrong, and she acted on it. She was one of the black leaders during the civil rights movement in Bertie County. The local Chapter of the NAACP had their monthly meeting in our living room. She regularly wrote opinion letters to the local and state newspapers criticizing the hypocrisy or injustice of a certain governmental policy or action. After the passage of 1965 Voting Right Act, she ran unsuccessfully for the Bertie County Board of Commissioners. She knew that she and other black candidates who ran at the same time for various offices were going to lose. But her purpose for running was to get black people registered to vote for the first time, and to get them accustomed to voting. Four years later, she ran successfully for the Bertie County Board of Education, being the first black and female to ever be elected.
My grandmother’s best quality was her spirit of helping. She believed she had a duty to help others. Miss Helen, and she was affectionately called, was the person in the community that people turned to when they had a problem. And my grandmother would do what she could. She was regularly on the telephone calling a local, state or even federal government agency on behalf of someone who needed assistance. People would regularly come by the house with a letter they’d received from an agency. They wanted by grandmother to read it and tell them what they needed to do. But more often that not, have her do it for them.
In 1968 or 1969, she was one of the first employees of CADA in Bertie County. This required her to get a drivers license at the age of 55, and she had never driven before. She bought a car, and started working for CADA providing service to impoverished people all over the county. She retired from CADA in 1978. Shortly thereafter, on behalf of Social Services, she started transporting people who were without transportation to doctors’ appointments around the area and as far away as Greenville, NC. The service she provided was a forerunner to the CPTA Bus System we have today.
She impacted my life in several ways: First, as a teenager I was always deterred from doing or getting involved in any illegal or immoral activity because I knew it would hurt and embarrass my grandmother. Second, I developed her strong sense of right and wrong, such that I try to act in any way I can to undo what I believe to be an injustice. Third, her attitude for helping and serving has made me keenly aware of how truly blessed I am, and as a result, I have a moral obligation to help others who are less fortunate.
Growing up during our country’s tumultuous period of segregation and desegregation, Judge Grant had many childhood memories of what it was like to grow up in rural North Carolina during the 60’s. Being bribed with the promise of a brand new bike from his grandmother, Judge Grant, at the age of 11, agreed to attend the white elementary school in downtown Windsor, North Carolina. While experiencing some racism at the white elementary school, Judge Grant acknowledges that it was never violent or malicious. Despite the lack of violence, Judge Grant has memories that remain with him today, more than fifty years later.
It soon became apparent that I was probably the smartest student in the class. There were two classes of fifth graders. One morning our teacher came in and said that she and the teacher from the other fifth grade class were discussing having a contest to see which grade was the smartest. They would choose one student from each class to represent the class in the contest.
Then one of my white classmates shouted out, “We will choose Cy”. Then everyone in the class just joined in agreement, “Yeah, we will have Cy represent us.” Obviously that made me feel good. But then I noticed the teacher had this look of shock on her face. She then said, “Well you know, we aren’t sure if we are actually going to do it. You know we have to get permission from the principal. We will just have to see.” Even at 11 years old I knew that the competition wasn’t going to happen, and I knew why. Now years later, I still feel good that my young white classmates weren’t thinking about race. They just wanted to choose the person that would give their class the best chance of winning.
Twenty years ago, Judge Grant administered the oath and swore me into the practice of law in the presence of family, friends, and members of the community. I was young, impressionable and frightened to death as I thought about the responsibility I was taking on as a litigator in my home town and the surrounding areas. Having this man, a man that grew up in the same neck of the woods as me; a man that had accomplished so much throughout his career; a man that expected nothing but the best from the litigators that came before him; greatly influenced my commitment to my community and dedication to the profession.
Who do you think I should feature on “Man POWER Monday”? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or respond in the comments section with suggestions.