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Pioneering Charlotte judge Shirley Fulton dies at 71

Shirley Fulton.
Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.
Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.
Shirley Fulton.

Shirley Fulton, the first Black woman to serve as a prosecutor in Mecklenburg County and the first Black woman in North Carolina to win a seat as a judge in Superior Court, died Wednesday, her former law practice confirmed. She was 71.

The Charlotte Observer, which first reported the news, said the cause of death was complications from gallbladder cancer.

Fulton left a mark on the Charlotte region through a string of firsts, and service on a wide array of boards and organizations. She served as a Superior Court judge, prosecutor and other judicial positions for more than 20 years, and was a past president of the Mecklenburg County Bar. After leaving the bench, Fulton was a founding partner at the Charlotte-based Tin Fulton Walker & Owen law practice, which she joined in 2006. Fulton was also past president of the Wesley Heights Community Association and owner of The Wadsworth House, a civic gathering and events space.

"As lawyers, we are the single most important route to equality and equity," Fulton said on a 2015 episode of the "All Things Judicial" podcast. "I am so proud to be a lawyer and serve this state to make the justice system the best that it can be and to keep our profession a high calling in the spirit of public service."

Fulton also helped lead the successful bond campaign to raise funds to build the Mecklenburg County courthouse and served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Task Force.

Fulton grew up in Kingstree, South Carolina, a small town in the center of the state. She graduated from North Carolina A&T in Greensboro in 1977 and from Duke Law School in 1980.

In the 2015 interview, Fulton recalled growing up in Kingstree.

"I grew up there on a cotton and tobacco farm and couldn't wait to leave. So I saw education as my escape and went to North Carolina, and never went back," she said. "As I was picking cotton or working on the farm, I would dream about being educated and going away and doing other things, not working on a farm."

After law school, she worked in private practice before joining the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office. She won her Superior Court seat in 1988.

In an Instagram post, Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said he recalled meeting Fulton when he interned in the office decades ago.

"Our community has lost a giant," he wrote.

In a 1993 interview, while still serving as a judge, Fulton said fairness was one of her core values — and one she tried to reflect from the bench.

"Another thing that I think is important is to be able to treat everybody equally and with the same degree of respect, regardless of where they come from or what the charge is against them," she said. "I think that judges should treat people with respect, regardless of their plight in life or their reason for being in court."

Noell Tin, one of Fulton's partners in their law practice and a friend, said Fulton should be remembered not just as a trailblazing lawyer but as a person of humility.

"I think a lot of people know that Shirley was a trailblazer and they know that she had a enormous impact on the community," Tin said. "What I would want people to know is that Shirley never lost sight of who she was. She was as down-to-earth as one could possibly imagine, easy to be around, never never did anything that she didn't believe in — and I think that made her a much happier person."

WFAE newscaster Woody Cain contributed to this report.


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Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.
Kenny is a Maryland native who began his career in media as a sportswriter at Tuskegee University, covering SIAC sports working for the athletic department and as a sports correspondent for the Tuskegee Campus Digest. Following his time at Tuskegee, he was accepted to the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program as a Marketing Intern for The NASCAR Foundation in Daytona Beach, Florida in 2017.