Black History Month Hero: Judge Shirley Fulton

February 13, 2023   |   Amber Nimocks

To mark Black History Month, we are focusing on the inspiring stories of Black North Carolina lawyers who pursued justice in the courtroom while fighting racial injustice on all fronts.

Judge Shirley Fulton, portrait by Michael Shane Neal

Many NCAJ members were touched by the recent passing of Judge Shirley Fulton, the first Black woman to serve as a superior court judge in North Carolina and a founding partner of Tin, Fulton Walker & Owen.

Fulton grew up in Kingstree, S.C., where she graduated from a segregated high school when she was 16. She attended North Carolina A&T University and earned her law degree from Duke University School of Law. In 1982, Fulton went to work as an assistant district attorney for Mecklenburg County, the first Black woman to serve as a prosecutor in Mecklenburg County. In 1987, she was appointed to a seat on the district court bench, and in 1988 she won election as a superior court judge. She went on to become senior resident superior court judge in Mecklenburg County.

As noted in a tribute to Fulton in The Charlotte Observer, she is remembered for her quiet strength, her fairness and for serving as a role model and mentor to those who knew her. She was deeply involved in the community and served in many capacities, including on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Task Force, as chair of the Board of Advisors for the Charlotte School of Law and as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar. She was a devoted resident of Charlotte’s Wesley Heights neighborhood, where she restored Wadsworth House and made it a venue and meeting center for the community.

In a 1994 interview for the Carolina Law Oral History project, Fulton described the qualities of a good judge.

“I think that judges should treat people with respect, regardless of their plight in life or their reason for being in court; that judges should allow persons the opportunity to be heard, because I think that’s basically what most people want; that it doesn’t matter whether you rule for or against a person as long as they think that they’ve been treated fairly and been given the full opportunity to be heard. Then I think they’re basically satisfied. Patience, I think, patience, patience.”

She also expounded on the philosophy she developed in her years on the bench.

“Justice to me means treating everyone fairly that are involved in the particular situation that is before you. That does not necessarily mean the same result for each case that may be similar, but basing a decision on the facts of that particular case, the circumstances of those persons’ lives, how they got to be where they are, how many times they’ve been there before, and what are the prospects of them coming back again. You know, you’ve heard the punishment should fit the crime. I think that sometimes the punishment should fit the individual. I think that, as far as me personally in deciding cases and what I think is just, to give it a lot of thoughtful consideration, to research and consider all angles of the case, to apply the law as best I can to the specific fact situation, and to reach a decision based on all of those factors that I can live with.”

See Fulton’s obituary for details on the family’s wishes regarding tributes.