In the mid-1950s, Sylvia Allen remembered running up the steps of UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Law, looking all around in awe. “I would love to come to school here,” she said in a recording from the N.C. Association of Black Lawyers.
And she did. She enrolled in the law school in 1958 and graduated in 1962, breaking many barriers along the way. She became the first Black woman to graduate from the law school and later served as the first Black woman in both the state and the 12th Judicial District in Cumberland County as assistant district attorney.
Last Friday, the School of Law alumni created a scholarship in the name of Allen and unveiled a portrait of her that will be permanently displayed on campus.
“She was all of 5 feet tall, she was little,” said Sylvia Allen’s daughter and sixth child Kathryn Allen. “But you couldn’t have told her that. She might as well have been 6 foot 10 … she was huge in what she stood up for.”
At a time when the United States continues to reckon with racial inequality and discrimination in its institutions, her legacy is all the more relevant and timely.
Sylvia Allen didn’t enroll at the UNC School of Law until 1958 after she gave birth to Kathryn Allen. During her time at UNC, Sylvia Allen would leave her Fayetteville home in the early morning and leave school promptly after class to take care of her six children, according to writings from the Allen family that are included in a booklet celebrating the 240th anniversary of the district in Cumberland.
“Law school was something I wanted, but taking care of my children was something I had to do,” Sylvia Allen said, according to the family.
On her way to school one morning, Sylvia Allen was in a near-fatal car accident. Kathryn Allen said that one of her first memories as a child was seeing her mother in a body cast.
“They told her she would never walk again,” she said.
But the accident didn’t stop Syliva Allen. Even when she wasn’t able to hold the book to read, she asked her oldest daughter, Resna Hammer, to read her law textbooks to her.
Sylvia Allen eventually recovered with her graduation delayed by only a year.
“Just my mother’s tenacity. Her incredible commitment, her determination,” Kathryn Allen said. “It just tells you a little bit about who she was. She would not let obstacles like that stop her. She just wouldn’t.”
Commitment to social justice
More than a year after the murder of George Floyd and the national protests, debate and political promises spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement, many Black Americans are concerned about racial discrimination and its impact, states an August 2022 Pew report.
According to the report, roughly eight out of every 10 Black Americans surveyed said they have personally experienced discrimination because of their race or ethnicity. Sixty-eight percent from the study also said discrimination is the main reason many Black people cannot get ahead.
Well before Black Lives Matter formed, Sylvia Allen was advocating for Black people in Fayetteville and beyond.
In the weeks after her appointment as assistant district attorney, she refused to prosecute people who were threatened with arrest for protesting funding decisions by the city of Fayetteville outside City Hall.
She and her husband would also at times travel to Greensboro to bail out student demonstrators arrested at civil rights protests, including Hammer, their daughter.
“She was before her time,” Kathryn Allen said. “Social justice and the whole concept of Black Lives Matter. All of those that are our words of this day, my mom lived that 50, 40 years ago. She was doing it then.”
Jim Ammons, senior resident Superior Court judge for the 12th Judicial District and family friend of the Allens, spoke at the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday to commemorate Sylvia Allen after the unveiling of her portrait at the UNC School of Law on Friday.
“Sylvia was often the voice for folks who had no other voice,” Ammons said. “She was a caring person with a great sense of justice and was tenacious in pursuing fairness and equality for everyone.”
Allen died in 2012, but her legacy as a Black female lawyer lives on in both the community and within her family. Her granddaughter Rachael Hammer is the third-generation Black female lawyer.
“She had to do it, she had to stand up,” Kathryn Allen said in remembering a phrase her mother repeated often.
“That’s what I really want people to remember the most is that we all have to stand up in whatever challenge we find, whatever obstacle we face in the world … we have to stand up.”