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Historical marker dedicated to first Black woman licensed to practice law in North Carolina

 Ruth Whitehead Whaley and her husband, Herman Whaley.
Ruth Whitehead Whaley and her husband, Herman Whaley.

The first African American woman licensed to practice law in North Carolina had a highway historical marker dedicated in her honor Wednesday.

The marker for Ruth Whitehead Whaley stands near the corner of Ash and Jones streets in Goldsboro, not far from where she grew up.

Whaley was born in 1901 and attended school in Goldsboro where her parents were teachers.

After graduating from high school and then from Livingstone College in Salisbury, she married Herman Whaley in 1920, according to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Herman encouraged her to enroll in law school at Fordham University in New York, becoming the first African American woman to study law at that university and to earn a law degree there.

Whaley passed the bar exam in 1925 and became one of the first African American women to practice law in New York. She returned to Goldsboro in 1933 where she was granted a license to practice law in North Carolina.

However, Whaley’s law license in North Carolina was mostly ceremonial because of racism, said Ansley Wegner, of North Carolina's highway historical marker program.

“She couldn’t easily practice law here so she had to move to New York. But she still came back and went through the process and got her license here. I think that’s a real interesting side of the story,” Wegner said.

Whaley spent her early career in private practice in New York where she was an expert in civil service law and won several landmark cases. She maintained her private practice in New York until 1944 when she turned to politics.

In 1945, Whaley ran for a New York City Council seat as one of the first Black women ever nominated by a major political party in the country.

From 1951-73, Whaley served as secretary of the New York City Board of Estimate, assisting in municipal policy, including city budget, land use, contracts, franchises, and water rates.

Whaley died in 1977 and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Yonkers, New York.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.
Joe Jurney