May 2015

Judge George Greene

Judge, Attorney

If you didn’t know what George Greene did for a living, it would have been difficult to guess he was a judge.

“He was truly one of a kind,” his wife, Ruby Greene, recalls. “So many folks are so holier-than-thou on and off the bench. But he was definitely every man’s judge. He was a character and he wore that robe lightly.”

The first African-American jurist elected in Wake County, Greene served more than 20 years as a Superior Court and District Court judge, gaining a reputation for tempering justice with mercy and a common-sense approach to punishment.

First offenders who appeared in his court often received a stern lecture and a sentence that included some alternative to incarceration, along with community service.

“He assured them if they came before him again, things would be different and he would ‘throw the book’ at them,” Mrs. Greene recalls. “They really didn’t want to hear that lecture again.”

The approach worked, as Greene periodically received letters from mothers thanking him for “straightening up” their children. Greene’s commitment to fairness and equal opportunity in his courtroom reflected his earlier career as a civil rights attorney in Raleigh. In addition to representing Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College students arrested during the lunch-counter sit-ins in the 1960s, Greene was often involved in initiatives impacting jobs, housing and even recreational opportunities for African Americans.

His representation of a plumber in a suit against the City of Raleigh led to minority contractors being able to bid on and receive contracts from the city. His fight to address the unsafe conditions of the Chavis Park public pool led to its closing, and the closing of the segregated Pullen Park pool for a summer. Pullen was later opened as an integrated facility.

And he served as the attorney-of-record for the Raleigh Inter-Church Housing Corporation in developing one of the first low-income housing projects in the state to be accepted by the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare, now called Rich Park Apartments. On or off the bench, Greene believed in equality of opportunity and in the gift of a second chance. “If someone was down on his luck and if he trusted the person, he really would help them financially,” Mrs. Greene says. “I don’t think he was ever disappointed. Usually, the people he helped reciprocated and tried to do better.”

Greene was inducted into Raleigh Hall of Fame in 2011 and died in 2013 at age 82. But his legal legacy continues. Two of his daughters are attorneys, as are several young people who lived near the Greenes as children. “When you see people accomplishing things, that lets you know that something can be done and inspires you to try too,” Mrs. Greene says. “Someone had to lead the way and show people it could be done. He did that for a lot of people.”

Biography written by Mary Tyler March