President's Column
March-April 2009

My friend Charlye Farris

Barry Macha

Criminal District Attorney in Wichita County

As a boy growing up in Wichita Falls, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird inspired me to become a lawyer. After doing so and returning home to practice law, I have been inspired by my friend, Charlye Farris.

Charlye Farris is an African-American woman who was born June 30, 1929, in Wichita Falls. She was born in her maternal grandparents’ home and delivered by a doctor who lived next door (at that time, African-American mothers could not go to the hospital to give birth). Charlye is named after her great uncle, Charlie Booth. Charlye’s parents were married in the Booth home and Uncle Charlie exacted a promise from them that they would name their first child after him. Charlye’s mother, Roberta, decided to spell Charlye’s name with “y-e” thinking that would indicate that Charlye was a girl.

Charlye’s parents were educators. Mr. Farris was the first African-American school superintendent in Texas (Woodland Consolidated School District in Limestone County) and Mrs. Farris was an elementary schoolteacher for 49 years.

In 1945, Charlye graduated at age 15 as valedictorian of Booker T. Washington High School (our Wichita Falls public schools did not integrate until required by federal courts in 1969). She was 18 when she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Prairie View A&M College (our university in Wichita Falls did not integrate until required by federal courts in 1954). To appease her parents, Charlye took a job teaching third and fourth graders in Stamford but gave it up after a year to pursue her interest in the law.

Against all odds, Charlye became an attorney. When she applied for admission to law school, law was a man’s profession. There were very few female attorneys. There were no African-American women licensed to practice law in Texas. And it was very difficult to gain entry into the only law school in Texas that admitted African-Americans: the newly created law school at the Texas State University for Negroes in Houston (renamed Texas Southern University in 1951). Undeterred, Charyle entered law school at the University of Denver. She transferred to Howard University in Washington D.C. after her first year.

During Charlye’s last year in law school at Howard, her civil rights class helped work on Brown v. Board of Education; Thurgood Marshall (later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice), George E. C. Hayes, and James M. Nabrit Jr., practiced their Supreme Court arguments (“dry runs”) in front of Charlye’s class.

In 1953, Charlye graduated from Howard University with a law degree and returned to Texas to take the Bar exam in October. She got her results in November (she first read that she had passed in the local newspaper) and her father drove her to Austin where she was sworn in on November 12, 1953. She became the first African-American woman to be licensed to practice law in Texas.

Charlye came back home to Wichita Falls and was the first woman to actively practice law in Wichita County. She endured the indignity of practicing law in the county courthouse which until 1962 had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for white and “colored” people. And Charlye was unable to attend the local bar association’s luncheon meetings because they were held at the Marchman Hotel which excluded African-Americans.

On July 7, 1954, members of the Wichita County Bar Association unanimously elected Charlye to serve as Special Wichita County Judge (County Judge Pro-Tem). She became the first African-American to serve as a judge in any capacity in the South since Reconstruction. The local newspaper ran articles about Charlye’s accomplishment but refused to include her picture because of the paper’s policy at the time against publishing photos of African-Americans.

Such incidents were just one more reminder of the second-class citizenship that African-Americans experienced during the Jim Crow era. Black folks faced discrimination in buying or renting a home or office and were often denied admission to public places. In Wichita Falls, for example, the Woman’s Forum and the Marchman and Holt hotels would not admit African-Americans.

In February 1955, Charlye opened a law office near the railroad tracks on the city’s east side (202 Park). Passing trains sounded like they were coming right through the office. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Charlye was able to lease an office downtown by the county courthouse (where she has officed now for over 40 years). Despite the indignities that she endured, especially during her early career, Charlye persevered, worked hard, and established a reputation for honesty and fairness.

On September 10, 1963, Charlye filed a suit for a mandatory injunction in Billouin v. City of Wichita Falls et al., #73,122-A in Wichita County 30th District Court. Before being held unconstitutional by our courts, restrictive covenants in deeds of residential property were often utilized so that the property could not be used or occupied by anyone who wasn’t Caucasian. Charlye turned the tables on the establishment in this case and used a restrictive covenant to obtain injunctive relief for a married couple in Charlye’s neighborhood to prevent a city police officer, who also lived in the neighborhood, from keeping a police dog and from erecting housing for the animal.

Charlye’s work on this case is among the most gratifying of all she has handled. Police dogs had been used in the South against African-Americans, and Charlye resented their inhumane use and what they symbolized. She paid for the costs of the suit out of her own pocket.

In 1973 Charlye became a mother. She had a son, Troy K. Farris, through the single-parent adoption plan when he was all of five days old. Like his grandparents, Troy became an educator and is currently a vice-principal at a local public high school.

Charlye was selected as acting District Judge of the 78th District Court in Wichita County during the summer of 1973. She has served on the board of directors of the Wichita County Bar Association and as chairperson of the District 14-A Grievance Committee of the State Bar of Texas. Despite an active solo private practice that by the 1970s concentrated on family law, real estate, and probate matters, Charlye has long been involved in community and civic issues, and she serves as a director on the boards of several organizations. She is also a member and former trustee of the Gilbert C.M.E. Church of Wichita Falls.

Ten years ago the Wichita County Bar Association established a scholarship in Charlye’s honor to help students interested in law to attend college and law school. The scholarship helps students attend colleges and law schools that she could not have attended as a young woman because of her race. In 2006, Charlye was appointed and serves on the Board of Regents of Midwestern State University (my alma mater) in Wichita Falls, which she could not have attended as a young student. And recently the local public school district, whose schools Charlye was barred from attending, named an elementary school after Charlye and her mother, Roberta (who turns 104 this July 19).

Charlye has received several very prestigious state and national bar association awards honoring outstanding women lawyers who have achieved professional excellence and paved the way for success for other women lawyers. In 2004 she received the Texas Bar Foundation’s Outstanding Fifty-Year Lawyer Award, recognizing attorneys whose practice spanned 50 years or more and who adhere to the highest principles and tradition of the legal profession and service to the public.

The essence of Charlye’s story is eloquently stated by Betsy Whitaker, 2003 State Bar President, in her column in the September 2003 issue of the Texas Bar Journal:

Charlye is a lawyer, a Texan, and a woman whose dignity and strength helped her overcome the adversity that could have obliterated her dream of being a lawyer. Many have benefited from her persistence and patience. All Texas lawyers, especially women and minority lawyers, have individuals like Charlye to thank for leading the way, for standing tall, and for making it a little easier for those of us who have come later.

Charlye’s story is a testament to the “power of one”—the difference one person can make in a community, in a profession, and even in our history.

Charlye Farris represents all that is good and honorable about the legal profession. Her courage and integrity make her the female equivalent of Atticus Finch. Charlye will turn 80 on June 30 and she still puts in a full workday Monday through Friday. The years have not diminished Charlye’s elegance, and the prejudice she has endured has not made her bitter or resentful. She remains soft-spoken and humble and a very private person who shuns any publicity. She is a hero to me and a role model to emulate. Charlye makes me proud to be a lawyer, and I am honored to be her friend.✤