3 men fueled civil rights 'fire' into Wilson law firm, building legal legacy whose history is yet to be etched
You could walk right by 615 E. Nash St. in Wilson and not know its significance. There is no marker or sign giving anyone a clue to what happened inside those four walls.
But within the humble brick foundation sprung attorneys and legal minds who helped shape the legal landscape in eastern North Carolina while blazing a path for African-American attorneys well beyond Wilson County. The building opened as a law office in 1975 and became the steadfast foundation for newly graduated, young African-American men propelled toward the law by an internal drive founded in the civil rights movement. The original law partners — Milton "Toby” Fitch Jr., G.K. Butterfield and Quentin Sumner — developed their legal prowess in that office and went on to break barriers while taking other young lawyers under their wings.
All three partners had supportive families. But none had lawyers in their families who could help them gain a foothold in the legal world. In fact, at one point Sumner was advised that while he was smart and exceedingly capable he couldn’t practice law because, unfortunately, he was black.
From that tiny office produced two state Superior Court judges, Fitch and Sumner. Fitch also served as a state legislator. Butterfield became a N.C. Supreme Court justice and went on to become a Democratic U.S. Congressman.
Later generations got their start at the firm, too. There is Robert Evans, who began his legal career there, became a judge and is the current district attorney for the Seventh Judicial District, which covers Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties.
Federal judge James Wynn is a member of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Patricia Fitch, Fitch’s younger sister, is believed to be the first African-American woman to practice law in Wilson and went on to become the lead council for the Virgin Islands port authority modernizing the seaport and airports.
At one time they had offices in Greenville, Rocky Mount, Raleigh and Tarboro.
Although the practice no longer exists, the partners have remained friends and there’s a long list of attorneys who trained there.
DRIVEN TO THE LAW
Being raised during the civil rights movement gave Fitch a close look at the fight and he had no choice but to join in. Fitch and Butterfield came face to face with those who could not imagine a world with integration.
One such incident unfolded in 1963, when Fitch and Butterfield were present at an NAACP national convention in Washington, D.C.
"That was where we watched George Rockwell turn loose white rats in the banquet hall amongst all of the folks who were there because in Rockwell’s opinion, Rockwell’s Nazis, the only thing that black folks needed to be around was white rats,” Fitch said.
Fitch and Butterfield participated in demonstrations and struggles in the South. Fitch said those who participated in the civil rights movement not only watched what happened in their state, but in other Southern states. He said the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina moved North Carolina students to join them in protest.
In the Orangeburg protest, students at South Carolina State University protested on their campus because they wanted the only bowling alley to be desegregated. South Carolina Highway Patrol officers opened fire on protesting students, killing three and wounding 27 others.
Fitch participated in a demonstration in Durham because he said he and other students thought the governor should have stepped in to say the killing and shooting of the students by law enforcement was wrong.
"So we had gone downtown and hung the governor in effigy at Five Points Park,” Fitch said. "They set the dummy on fire and the fire trucks came and turned hoses on us. So kids were running back down Main Street and some windows of some shops started falling and cops started arresting people for it.”
Fitch said he was arrested for destruction of property, went to trial and was placed on probation. Since it was also an election year, students went to the polls to vote.
"When G.K. was coming home to cast a ballot, I couldn’t walk home,” Fitch said. "That was a form of demonstration to be walking home with a bunch of college kids to cast their first ballot.”
Those events helped to shape Fitch and set him on a path toward law.
"It was the civil rights movement that was the impetus for my studying law,” Fitch said. "I believe the same is true for G.K. and Quentin.”
Fitch said fighting for equal rights is in his blood. In Tryon Palace there is a picture of one of Fitch’s relatives hanging there.
"If you go to the visitor’s center, you’ll see a great big picture hanging from the ceiling of a very fair-skinned man with an Army uniform,” Fitch said. "Folks would say there is a white man with a Union Army uniform on. He’s not white. He’s my great-grandfather hanging from the ceiling. Not being hung, but a portrait of him.”
Fitch said his great-grandfather trained 1,000 black troops using corn stalks to simulate rifles. He taught them to fight for their freedom.
"That same spirit of fighting throughout the generations from my folks, that existed in him, that existed in my father, also exists in me,” Fitch said. "The fire has not died. It is just as bright and warm today as it was when I was 15 and 16 years of age. I just fight differently – hopefully I fight smarter.”
When he was a teen, Fitch said, it was only important to get into the battle. Today he realizes if he fights he must be able to fight another day as well.
"I want to win the war, not just the battle,” Fitch said.
As a boy, Butterfield watched election laws change from district elections to at-large. Butterfield said with fewer minorities living in Wilson, it was impossible to elect African-Americans to office because at that time the majority population would not vote for a black candidate. That change from district to at-large meant African-American residents had no representation and no voice in city or county government.
"My dad was on city council and lost his re-election in 1957,” Butterfield said. "A local African-American attorney, Romallus O. Murphy, ran in 1959 and also lost. The community employed the NAACP to challenge the change in election laws.”
The case went all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — Watkins vs. City of Wilson.
They lost the case. But because of that case, Butterfield became interested in law.
"It made me not only want to be a lawyer, because I saw how the lawyer worked in the case, but it also made me want to be an elected official,” Butterfield said. "That experience made me want to practice law at home and sue the city over the change in election procedures that defeated my father.” When the time came for Butterfield to sue, his suit was against the county. After winning that lawsuit, the City of Wilson also changed from "at large” back to district races.
The three graduated from North Carolina Central Law School – Fitch first, Butterfield second and Sumner, the youngest, last.
"At one point, we were all at Central at the same time,” Butterfield said. Fitch, the oldest of the trio, didn’t pass the bar the first time he took it. Butterfield didn’t pass the bar at first either. The three ended up taking the bar together in 1975, and all passed, Sumner said.
"I was quite cocky when I went to take the test and said something to my parents like they couldn’t write a test I could not pass,” Sumner chuckles remembering.
Fitch had taken a job coaching football first at North Carolina Central and then at Delaware State College before passing the bar exam. Butterfield went to the military and married Jean Farmer-Butterfield before going to law school.
Despite passing the bar and their life experiences, doors didn’t open for them. And some were slammed shut as Sumner would find.
Sumner really wanted to practice law in Rocky Mount.
"I had a very good friend who introduced me to some lawyers,” Sumner remembered. "I was introduced to a very prominent man here who had a booming practice. He agreed to have lunch with me. We met at the Carlton House in downtown Rocky Mount.”
Sumner said the meal was enjoyable and they began to talk about his working as a lawyer with the prominent attorney’s office.
"He told me, ‘You’re a very likable young man, but you’re an African-American and you went to an African-American law school and you’re not really going to be able to practice law and I really don’t see you in my firm,’” Sumner said. "I was very gracious under the circumstances. I bit my tongue.”
Sumner said that attorney did not tell him a lack of experience was the reason he could not practice law, or to get some experience before working with him. That attorney told him his skin color was the barrier.
Hurt and angry, Sumner went to his car and prayed.
"I made a quick prayer,” Sumner said. "I said Lord, please help me show this man that he cannot define for me who I can be and what I can be in this world. I know that all that power lies in your hands, and I leave it to you.”
Shortly after that meeting Sumner got a call from Butterfield asking him to meet with him and Fitch.
"I believe G.K. and Toby had already talked and they thought I would be a good person in the mix,” Sumner said. "They said let’s start a firm. We’ll be the only African-American firm east of Raleigh. And we’d be the largest African-American firm east of Raleigh. Three is not a great number, mind you. But we were the largest in the East.”
a bold move
It was a bold move, but the three young men scraped together $1,500 and decided to open a law practice in east Wilson.
"We had $500 each,” Fitch said. "From there we never missed a payroll. We never missed paying any of our obligations that we had. We had no advertising, just word of mouth.”
Fitch said they were all living with their parents and that kept costs down.
The building at 615 was the dental office where Butterfield’s father practiced. The whole building was 800 square feet, Butterfield said. Butterfield’s father practiced on one side of the building and the law practice was situated on the other side.
"The offices were small,” said Patricia Fitch. "When Toby would leave for court, I would sit at his desk. But we worked hard and long hours.” They realized they needed more space and got a loan to expand the building, Butterfield said.
HISTORIC POINT OF VIEW
North Carolina Central Law Professor Irv Joyner said the law firm was blazing trails from the start. He said back in the 1970s there just weren’t many black lawyers in the South.
"When they graduated they were not in a position to enter white law firms because of the discrimination that existed in North Carolina,” Joyner said. "So, for an African-American who came out of law school, the focus was opening their own. It was the only choice and the purpose for coming to law school was to go back home where there was an absence of representation.”
In those days Joyner said African-American lawyers used to come together to talk about what they faced.
Joyner said to have access to an African-American attorney, Wilson residents would have to go outside of the county and travel as far as Goldsboro, where Earl Whitted practiced law, or seek out Roy Boddie in Rocky Mount or travel all of the way to Raleigh for representation from Sam Mitchell and George Green, Joyner said of the 1970s.
Attorneys like Whitted, Boddie, Mitchell and Green traveled around the state representing people of color.
"Toby, G.K. and Quentin created a presence there,” Joyner said. "They did the cases that involved accidents, represented folks’ other claims, but who else would have taken on the civil rights issues if they were not there?”
"People should know what they did for that county,” Joyner said. "They deserve accolades for the groundbreaking innovative work they did.”
Fitch said he became the go-to criminal guy.
"I was the one who was charged with drumming the business,” Fitch said. "So I went into criminal court with no clients. But a vast number of individuals knew me. And so I walked in and I would see Johnny that I went to school with, and played ball with, and I’d ask him what are you doing here? And he would say I’ve got a case here. I’d say, do you have a lawyer? He would say no. And I would say, what do you want? He might say I want to get out of here and get it continued. I would say I’ll do it for you.”
And so having done that, Fitch said he’d ask the district attorney for the same thing he may have given Robert Farris as a plea bargain for his client. And the district attorney would tell Fitch no.
"So, now I have all of these people who I represent,” Fitch said. "When he wouldn’t give it to me, I would say you will have to reckon with me one day. And so I would wind up with 25, then 30, 35, then 40 cases on the calendar.”
A year after the law offices opened, Fitch, Butterfield and Sumner got a controversial case where a young African-American boy was killed. Fitch said the case had tensions high on all sides.
Joyner said in many high-profile cases where a white person would be accused of killing a black person, white prosecutors would refuse to prosecute.
"So, for those cases to be prosecuted, often a black law firm would be hired to do the work of prosecutors,” Joyner said.
In this particular case a young man named Harry Lee Dickens was in his yard and a youth named Mark Dupree was selling newspapers, Fitch said.
"Mark was white and Dickens was black,” Fitch remembered. "Dickens and Mark had some words. Mark’s mother comes around and sees there is an exchange going on, and she pulls a gun. She comes up and there is a struggle over the gun and eventually Dickens got shot and killed.”
The venue for the trial was moved from Halifax to Vance County. Dupree’s mother was found not guilty in the trial.
"I really believe in looking at it now that we prosecuted the wrong person,” Fitch said. "The person who should have been prosecuted was her son, Mark. What I later found was that when the mother came up and saw the struggle between her son and Dickens, and then pulled the gun, Dickens then went to the mother and there was a struggle over the gun. The gun falls to the ground and then Mark picked up the gun and fired the gun. So, the mother took the charge rather than to have her son — figuring that if she told the story that she was coming to the defense of her son, she’d be found not guilty. And she was.”
Fitch said the case tore Scotland Neck apart. He said the family had problems after the case. The son ended up in and out of trouble. The mother was married to a fundamentalist minister, and they divorced.
Fitch said that in the history of this country there have always been controversial cases where race issues arise and other cases where there is just controversy because of sensitivities in a community.
Fitch said the pressure is great on a family and an attorney when the case is high profile.
"I’ve always tried to stay focused with what I had to do regardless of what was going on around me,” Fitch said. "You are aware. It’s like playing in a football game. In the stands and on my side, I see very few people. I look on the other side and I see a whole lot of people. And I see those people being vocal about whatever they are being vocal about. But I still have a job to do. And I try to do that job.”
Former Wilson County Commissioners chairman Frank Emory Sr. said the law office of Fitch, Butterfield and Sumner was extremely important to his family.
His son, Frank Emory Jr., now works for Hunton and Williams Law Firm in Charlotte. They practice law globally and have about 920 attorneys.
But Emory got started as a law clerk at 615 East Nash in 1979.
"It was a genuine act of generosity because I didn’t know jack,” Emory Jr. said. "They were still young guys when I came along. But they gave me advice, shared tips and were mentors for me.”
Emory Jr. said they let him sit in on meetings, go to court and see what lawyers do.
"My son wouldn’t have known what the inside of a law firm looked like if it wasn’t for them,” Emory Sr. said.
Fitch said the beauty of their law firm was the mixture of personalities.
"We all had strong personalities, some stronger than others,” Fitch said. "The personalities are no different today than they were then. I don’t care what the situation was, I was going to put my 2 cents in. G.K. was always an opinionated person and thought it should be a certain way. And Sumner was the type of guy that would make sure that we didn’t fall out on it. When there was no more Sumner, then there was Wynn, who was the stabilizer.”
Each of the men talk about the respect and love they have for each other. Even now when there is a dispute among the friends, Fitch said the same thing takes place.
"If we ask Wynn what he thinks, Wynn will say something like ‘You’re not going to pull me in the middle of this Toby. You and G.K. have been friends all of these years and you’ve worked it all out. You are going to continue to be friends and I’m not going to step in and side with either one of you. You both have good points,’” Fitch said.
Fitch concedes today he and G.K. would both have good points and always worked out their differences.
A PLACE TO GO
As the law partners began their judgeships, they left their law practice to young lawyers like Brian Paxton, Ericka Fitch, Fitch’s niece, and Mark Bibbs.
Ericka Fitch first went to Rocky Mount, Paxton to the attorney general’s office and Bibbs opened up his own practice.
The doors closed for good in 2003.
Fitch, Butterfield and Sumner said it would be great if a place like 615 East Nash was available now for young lawyers to train.
"I think it is a miracle that it ever happened,” Sumner said. "Obviously, the natural sequence of things, the office should be there today and it should be servicing the community. I believe that.”
Sumner said there are probably those who don’t share that sentiment.
"When you look around now, you don’t have a true African-American firm with three or four attorneys practicing together and you really should,” Sumner said.
Today, the building sits empty with no one to occupy its walls or continue its storied history.
Fitch and Butterfield believe there is a place today for a firm like they had at 615 and said after retirement they might even help such a group of lawyers — but concede we may never pass this way again.