Commencement 2011: Speaker Represents Power of ‘Firsts’

April 27, 2011

Judge Shirley Fulton knows that it makes a powerful statement when you are a “first.” As the first African-American woman to serve as Superior Court judge in Mecklenburg County — the largest judicial district in North Carolina — Fulton began to challenge preconceptions and set a precedent for courtroom professionalism when she was appointed in 1989.

When she steps on the podium as Mary Baldwin University’s 169th Commencement speaker May 22, Fulton will address a graduating class brimming with firsts. Many will be the first in their family to graduate from college. Some are the first to earn a graduate degree. Several were the first to enroll in courses in criminal justice, American studies, or Renaissance studies at Mary Baldwin. One student in the crowd was the first to develop an undergraduate major in exercise science, and several others were the first to combine disciplines in innovative ways to study exactly what they intended. They are the first class to have heard the phrase “Boldly Baldwin” throughout their time on campus, and they have embraced it and infused it with new meaning.

“Through her life story, Judge Fulton has much to share with our graduates,” said David Atchley, vice president for Institutional Advancement at Mary Baldwin. He met Fulton when she was planning the Charlotte School of Law and remains connected to her through a non-profit foundation she created to support law students and encourage community outreach.

Fulton presided over many high-profile civil and criminal cases during her 14-year tenure in the Superior Court of North Carolina, and she continued to practice law with the private firm Tin, Fulton, Walker, and Owen until 2009.

Underlying Fulton’s professional roles has been a commitment to community development and encouraging leadership potential. Several years ago, she envisioned establishing a law school in her hometown with a student-centered curriculum that would equip graduates with the leadership, management and interpersonal skills that are necessary for career success. In August 2006, Charlotte School of Law welcomed its inaugural class of students, becoming the only law school in the state’s most populous city. Fulton taught community economic development law and negotiations courses at the school in 2009 and continues to serve as chair of the Board of Advisors. In January 2010, she created the non-profit Law and Community Foundation.