Soldier for Civil Rights
Geraldine Sumter stays true to her mission
Published in 2009 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2009
Updated on January 28, 2021
Tension was in the air. It was the fall of 1971, the first semester of desegregation at Lower Richland High in Columbia, S.C. Two hundred African-American students, including 10th-grader Geraldine Sumter, were having an amiable discussion with the principal in the cafeteria about race, school policy and how there were no black cheerleaders.
Then in walked the football team, with its white players wielding baseball bats and two-by-fours, banging on tables. Fights broke out, and Sumter and others moved into a nearby courtyard. School closed for a week and law enforcement officers were on hand for another three weeks. The incident furthered Sumter’s resolve: she wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.
She was inspired the year before when she and others fought unsuccessfully to keep formerly all-black Hopkins High open as a high school. Two African-American civil rights lawyers who would go on to distinguished careers in law, Matthew J. Perry and John Roy Harper III, worked with her and others to challenge the school board. Observing Perry and Harper at work and receiving encouragement from them, Sumter thought, “This, I could do.”
Today, as managing partner of Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter in Charlotte, Sumter is one of the top civil rights attorneys in the nation.
With a focus on employment law, Sumter handles cases involving big and small businesses, nonprofits, workers’ compensation, voting rights and school desegregation. “She is a pillar of our firm,” says co-founder James E. Ferguson II. “She is one of the persons who keep us true to our mission.”
Sumter’s modus operandi was inspired early, when she was still learning times tables and competing in spelling bees. Her teachers at all-black Gadsden Elementary in South Carolina had high expectations for students. “They were phenomenal—they wanted us to think beyond what we saw in front of us,” says Sumter, whose mother was a homemaker and father worked in a food-processing plant. She grew up the second oldest of four sisters and one half-sister.
When it was time for college, Sumter was eager to see more of the world. She applied to two out-of-state schools, Howard and Duke, and chose Howard because of its diverse student body, strong academics and civil rights legacy. “In high school, I read about Thurgood Marshall, people in the struggle and Howard’s role,” she says.
She graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1978, and then entered Duke University School of Law. “I knew I wanted to come South to practice, so I wanted to go to a Southern law school,” she says. She was one of five African Americans in her class.
“Geraldine was sort of the stable one—she made us all do right,” says Shirley Fulton, who graduated a year before Sumter. “She had fun and laughed, but you knew Geraldine meant business. She was one of the ones who wore a ‘fro and I’ve never seen her with another hairdo. She also wore African-style tops. There was never any doubt.”
Sumter distinguished herself in law school as part of the national winning team in the Frederick Douglass Moot Court competition. After graduating in 1981, she clerked for Court of Appeals Judge Charles Becton in Raleigh. “If more employers were like him and had the same philosophy about encouraging and working with people to develop their strengths, I probably wouldn’t have much work as an employment lawyer,” she says. “He is also one of the best trial advocacy instructors in the country.”
After the clerkship, she landed a job where she expected to spend her career: Legal Services, now known as Legal Aid. But funding cutbacks under the Reagan administration and safety concerns representing domestic-violence victims led her to look elsewhere.
During her six months at Palmetto Legal Services in Lexington, S.C., one of her clients was beaten beyond recognition and stuffed in a trunk. Another was shot six times at point-blank range by her estranged husband, who was at large for more than six hours. “It was the only time I considered straightening my hair,” Sumter says of going incognito as a safety precaution.
Ferguson Stein Chambers & Gresham, where she had interned during law school, soon recruited her away. “Most important for me—though Geraldine was bright and smart—was her sense of wanting to make change and acting to address inequalities,” Ferguson says. “She was not in law for the money or to make a name. It was the passion for the work.”
Joining the firm on the last day of 1982, she went to work almost immediately with name partner Julius Chambers on a complex employment discrimination case brought by civilian employees at the Fort Bragg Army base. Though she says they lost because expert-witness testimony didn’t pan out, Sumter distinguished herself with her intellect, organizational skills and fortitude, which included long stints in Fayetteville. “She hit the ground running and never looked back,” says name partner John Gresham.
In employment cases, Sumter often represents individuals challenging corporations, including major manufacturers R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris USA. Her biggest wins are out-of-court settlements. Cases are often on contingency and take years to get to court.
Becky Thorne Tin worked with Sumter on a racial-retaliation case. “She took depositions of top brass at the company and interviewed workers—Geraldine was absolutely tenacious. I was very impressed with how much she put into the case and how much she believes in her client,” says the Mecklenburg County district judge. “She really knows the law and is not going to play it safe. If she believes an injustice was done, she’s going to use the facts to push the law, even if she’s not going to see a penny from it.”
She also wins admiration from opposing attorneys. “I have defended a number of employment cases against Geraldine on a regular basis over the past decade or more,” says Keith Weddington of Parker Poe. “She is quite professional in her dealings, yet is a staunch advocate for her clients.”
From 1991 through 1994, Sumter served as president of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, only the second woman to do so. During that time, she represented the group in a legal battle over electing state Superior Court judges. Her firm and others had fought hard in the late 1980s to change the way these judges were elected so that minorities had a fairer shot at winning. In making the nomination process local versus statewide, more than a half-dozen African-American judges were elected for the first time.
When further legal challenges arose in the early 1990s, “we intervened because we wanted to make sure there was no diminution in [black] voting power in the election of judges,” Sumter says.
University of North Carolina law professor Charles Daye, the association director at the time, says his colleague was “the consummate lawyer in that she not only worked the details of the case but worked the law. She was thorough and organized and insistent on the issues we needed to bring up.”
In the early 1990s, Sumter also began working with a program sponsored by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and the Black Lawyers Association Legal Education Centre to train lawyers in South Africa, many of whom have gone on to become major legal figures in the country. She recruits American attorneys to teach in South Africa, teaches there herself, and has adapted course materials for the region.
“Geraldine has been a lifeline for keeping that program going,” says Ferguson, who co-founded the program in 1986.
The civil rights attorney turns 53 in March. By this time in her career, she thought she would be pursuing art or focusing on air and space law. “I thought civil rights law would be done by the time I was 50,” Sumter says, “but there is still so much intolerance in the world.”
She’s encouraged by the inauguration of President Barack Obama. “I do not believe we will see immediate monumental change,” she says. “But I’m hopeful in the coming years we will see far fewer discrimination and civil rights cases.”