Today, on what would have been his 94th birthday, we revisit the legacy of Judge Richard C. Erwin, one of the first African Americans elected to statewide office in North Carolina, a member of the state Board of Education, a legislator and a federal judge.
Erwin, who died in 2006 in Winston-Salem, where he lived most of his life, was born in McDowell County on Aug. 23, 1923, according to the Carolina Law Oral History Project.
After graduating from all-black Hudgins High School, Erwin served in the U.S. Army, earned a B.A. at Johnson C. Smith University and a law degree from Howard University. During a lengthy career as an attorney in Winston-Salem, Erwin served on the local school board and the state Board of Education.
He was elected to serve two terms in the N.C. Senate, then appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals by Gov. Jim Hunt. Voters across North Carolina elected him to retain that appeals court post in 1978.
Erwin’s judicial career was far from done. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Erwin for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina and Erwin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, making him the first African American federal judge in our state’s history. He retired from active service in 1994.
Writer and Marion native Joe Elliott interviewed former Gov. Jim Hunt in 2014 about Erwin’s career and asked Hunt what Erwin’s legacy might be.
“I think the example of his life, a life of service,” the former governor told Elliott. “I might add, a life of caring serving. A life of hard work and never quitting or giving up or giving in. Richard Erwin was one of the hardest-working, most determined men I ever worked with. I would add his belief, lived by the example of his own life, of people simply getting along and working together to accomplish things.”
Richard C. Erwin was a pioneer and one of the most accomplished people to come from our community. We hope in the very near future, community leaders will honor his historical significance and establish a lasting, local memorial to his legacy.