30 May 2022
Goldsboro, N.C. — The first Black woman to be certified as an attorney in North Carolina never practiced law in the state.
Nearly a century later, a new historic marker is honoring the late Ruth Whitehead Whaley in Goldsboro, where leaders hope the sign will serve as an example for the entire community to follow.
“This is an opportunity that a local hero can be recognized,” Archbishop Anthony Slater said.
At the corner of Ash and John streets near downtown Goldsboro, a new historical marker stands, erected by the state on May 25.
“Ruth Whaley,” the marker reads. “Pioneer female African-American lawyer, first to be licensed in NC.”
Missing from the message is the reality of the challenges she faced.
“She left Goldsboro at the age of 21, going to New York,” Slater said.
Despite graduating at the top of her class from Fordham University in 1924, the racism of Jim Crow-era North Carolina left Whaley unable to practice law in her home state.
Instead, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said Whaley went to New York City, becoming a successful attorney there.
In 1944, she pivoted to politics, becoming one of the first Black women ever to be nominated by a major political party when she ran for a seat on the New York City Council.
Whaley was eventually named secretary of the New York City Board of Estimate in 1951, serving in the position for more than two decades into the 1970s.
She died on Dec. 23, 1977.
“Here’s a woman who came against all odds, and was successful, is successful,” Slater said. “It is a platform for those who are coming behind that can do the same thing, if not greater.”
Slater spoke at the new marker’s dedication ceremony.
While researching Whaley’s life, Slater found struggles with poverty, education, and political representation that he said could still be found in communities like Goldsboro today.
“There’s not a playing field that’s fair, we’ve got to come to grips with that,” Slater said. “But we have a capability now that we can make some changes.”
Slater told WRAL News he hoped that’s where the sign would play a role: as a physical reminder of a woman who was faced with intolerance and rose above it, engraving a path for others to do the same.
“I think it’s a signal that you can make it,” Slater said. “There’s no reason why we can’t accomplish more if we have the backing of each other.”