GREENSBORO — A wedding day is supposed to be remembered for its joy and happiness. But for former N.C. Chief Justice Henry Frye, it’s also the day he remembers falling victim to a Jim Crow law — a law that 60 years later, is still listed on the state constitution.

By any definition, Frye is a successful man. An UNC law school graduate, Air Force veteran, state lawmaker, U.S. attorney and the first Black chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

“I didn't always succeed, but I thought it was worth trying,” Frye said of his many successes. “And at that time, there was frankly a lot of segregation purely based on race. So, I tried to get rid of that as much as I could.”

If you want to make Frye smile today, it’s pretty simple: just mention his wife of 64 years, Shirley.

“Shirley and I had been dating, and I said what about pinning me?” he said, pointing to a one of the dozens of family pictures on his wall.  “And she accepted graciously, and that sort of cemented our relationship.”

Frye talks about his wedding day to Shirley with a twinkle in his eye, but then he becomes more serious, when he talks about what happened before the wedding.

“That was the day that I was denied the right to vote.”

Frye and the woman marrying him decided to stop at the registrar on the way to Greensboro. Their plan was to get registered to vote, but the registrar had other plans.

“The person who was the registrar, started asking me questions, like name the 14th something about the 14th amendment,” Frye said.

“Name certain signers of the Declaration of Independence. And I said why in the world are you asking me all these questions? And he said they are right here in the book. I said well I think all that I need is to be able to read and write according to section two of the constitution in order to register. He said these are right here in the book, and he reached under the desk and pulled out the book and showed me the book where those questions were in there.”

Frye was denied his registration, and so was the woman marrying him.

Literacy tests, as they were known, weren’t really just making sure someone could read or write before they voted. These pre-registration tests were conceived after Black people were given the right to vote in the late 1800's. They were a common practice used especially in the South to confuse and discriminate.

A literacy test requirement was amended into North Carolina’s constitution. Today, that requirement is still part of our state’s governing document.

“It was a Jim Crow law to keep certain people from voting, and now we need to repeal that to be appropriate,” says Speaker Pro-tem Sarah Stevens, a republican from Surry County. 

She, along with other state representatives, like Democrat Kelly Alexander of Mecklenburg County, have been working for years to get this language out of our constitution. But, this idea was put before voters once before in 1970, and it failed. Stevens said there is hesitancy by some to try again today.

“Why put it out there to embarrass ourselves again and risk having it fail just because people don't understand it,” Stevens said some colleagues argue.

“I certainly think it ought to be out of the constitution, the question is whether we can successfully get there this time,” Sen. Phil Berger, senate president pro-tem, said.

Berger leads the Senate, which is traditionally hesitant to amend the state’s constitution. He points out the literacy test is already defunct because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a US Supreme Court decision. But said he still believes there is a reason to remove the language from the constitution.

“The problem is, in the past, that language has been used in ways that prevented folks that actually could read to actually be able to vote,” Berger said. “And that history is something that we need to make sure that we don't find a way to replicate.”

For Frye, he pointed out he had already graduated from NC A&T University when he was denied the right to vote. He said if it had simply been a test of his reading and writing skills he would have easily passed, but he said that day in 1956, it was meant to discriminate.

“And I said then why don't you let me go in and register to vote?  He said, 'you didn’t answer the questions.' And I saw that it was a waste of time to keep talking.”