Reggie Shuford: Growing up in Wilmington helped shape his civil rights career (”1 on 1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Reggie Shuford has made a career out of fighting for civil rights. He’s lived on both coasts and represented clients in many states in-between. While he may not have known it at the time, Reggie now looks back at his childhood in Wilmington, raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs while on welfare, and sees instances where he faced the same wrongs he has since tried to right in court.
“Many times the same institutions that had pledged to help us did not so much,” the 53-year-old recalls. “They looked down their noses at us. I felt a very visceral reaction to what I later learned was injustice, and it very much formed my decision to become a civil rights lawyer, and to become a voice for people who often get shut out of the conversation.”
There was little doubt in the Shuford household that Reggie would become a lawyer. He says even at age six he would hurl question after question at older relatives, seeking the knowledge that did not interest the older children. The third of five kids living in the public housing community known as Creekwood had a zest for learning. Reggie also learned, and witnessed, the race and integration challenges that Black families faced living in a southern city. Reggie talks about one of his first experiences at 5:50 of the podcast.
“I was probably eight or nine years old, and we missed the (school) bus,” he recalls. “We attended elementary school around Greenfield Lake. The only thing we could do was to walk to school, and we were told we absolutely could not do that because people would be out to get little black children, and the KKK were around, so it was not safe for little Black children to walk in certain neighborhoods. That struck me as odd. It made me scared, frankly, for most of my childhood that there would be people out there who would be out to get us because they did not like the color of our skin.”
As he continued through elementary and middle school, Reggie did well in his studies, but admittedly had some behavior issues. Reggie says in his seventh-grade year at Lake Forest Junior High, he was sent to the principal’s office more than a dozen times. That led to an encounter with the school’s guidance counselor, Minnie Williams, and a conversation that would change the young man’s life. You can hear him tell the story at 26:40 of the podcast, which ended with Mrs. Williams placing Reggie in the school’s ‘gifted & talented’ program.
“That’s really when my life turned itself around,” Reggie says now about her decision. “I felt like someone really believed in me. She stuck her neck out for me. No one else had been willing to do that, and I didn’t want to let her down. I really changed my ways. I stopped getting into trouble. I doubled down on my studies and my books, and it really changed the course of my life.”
Reggie thrived in the academically challenging atmosphere. His outstanding grades led to an opportunity that most children in Wilmington’s public housing neighborhoods do not receive, an invitation to attend Cape Fear Academy, the city’s leading private school. You can hear the story of how it happened starting at 16:30 of the podcast.
Reggie became the first African-American student to graduate from CFA. He was the salutatorian for his senior class in 1984, also earning the Outstanding Youth Award in New Hanover County. During his speech at the school’s graduation ceremony, other students shouted racist remarks trying to lessen the significance of Reggie’s accomplishments. Years later, when Reggie returned to Wilmington for the school’s 50th anniversary celebration, he confronted one of the students responsible for the outbursts. He talks about that meeting at 23:10 of the podcast.
“I knew the only reason they didn’t like me was because I was black, I was in the school, I was graduating from there,” Reggie said. “But it was too momentous an occasion, the first Black graduate from the school, I’d given a speech that was well received, I’d made my folks proud because I was the first high school graduate in our family. All those things very clearly outweighed the negativity that those guys were trying to inject into what was going on.”
Reggie attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for his undergraduate studies and law school, where he was president of the graduating class. He clerked for Justice Henry Frye, the first African-American Justice and later Chief Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, who became a father figure for the young attorney from Wilmington.
After starting out in private practice, Reggie moved to New York City to work for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he spent 15 years. After a short stint working for a racial justice non-profit organization in Oakland, California, Reggie came back to the east coast in September 2011, to become the head of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Through all the travels and court cases, the native of North Carolina credits the city where he grew up with helping to shape his life’s passion.
“I still feel that Wilmington is home, where a lot of family members continue to reside,” he says. “There were some things about it, especially as I was coming of age, that I believe don’t often get a lot of discussion, around race and integration and all of those things that I think will continue to haunt this town until we really have a larger discussion about them. I felt that I lived and observed many of those kind of dynamics as I was growing up. But all in all, I’m a huge fan of my hometown.”
You can hear Reggie Shuford talk about those civil rights victories, the influence of Judge Frye, his thoughts on the larger conversation needed in the United States surrounding racial inequality, and many other topics. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
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