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UNC School of Law to unveil portrait of Sylvia X. Allen, the school’s first Black female graduate

Carolina Law alumni established an endowed scholarship to honor Allen’s legacy and enhance diversity at the law school leading the law school to commission the portrait

On Nov. 4, Carolina Law alumni, students, faculty and staff will join members of Sylvia X. Allen’s family as well as special guests Provost Chris Clemens, UNC Board of Trustees Chair Dave Boliek and the Honorable James F. Ammons ’80, Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for the unveiling of the portrait of Sylvia X. Allen ’62. The unveiling will take place at noon in the reading room of the Kathrine R. Everett Law Library.

In 2021, two generous alumni, M. Scott Peeler ’97 and Diana Florence ’95, wanted to honor Allen, who was a public servant, civil rights activist and a woman of many firsts. She was the first Black female to graduate from Carolina Law, one of the first three Black female lawyers admitted to the bar in North Carolina and the first Black female assistant district attorney in the state. With an initial gift, Peeler and Florence launched the Sylvia X. Allen Scholarship Endowment Fund. The scholarship will be awarded annually to a Carolina Law student who will enhance the social, economic and cultural diversity of the school’s student body.

“Learning about Sylvia Allen has been one of the best and most rewarding parts of this journey for us,” says Peeler. “Our friend, Destiny Planter, who was a Carolina Law student at the time, and I were talking one day, and she told me Mrs. Allen’s story. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t heard it before and deeply moved and inspired by all she had accomplished and overcome.”

Allen enrolled in law school in 1958, after the birth of her sixth child. She commuted to Chapel Hill from Fayetteville, North Carolina, every day, but was hospitalized after a near-fatal car accident. While hospitalized, her children read law books and case studies to her. Her determination to walk again and continue her studies briefly delayed her graduation by one year. For many years, she served her community as a prosecutor, assistant attorney general and as a member of numerous charitable and civic organizations.

Because of the gift from Peeler and Florence and to further solidify the legacy of Allen, Carolina Law commissioned artist, Robin Wellner, to create a portrait of Allen–a great example of what it means to be a Carolina lawyer leader–to be prominently displayed in Van Hecke-Wettach Hall and inspire future generations of aspiring lawyers. Members of Allen’s family were involved in choosing Wellner and making sure that Allen’s perseverance and determination were truly captured in the portrait.

“As a mother of two and someone who also served as an assistant district attorney for 25 years, I am so humbled by Sylvia Allen”, says Florence. “She was an incredible trailblazer. I hope the scholarship and portrait helps the next Sylvia Allen know what is possible with determination and perseverance.”

The portrait of Allen will hang in the law school alongside other distinguished Carolina Law alumni and faculty including Henry Frye ’59 (first Black student to complete all three years of study and graduate from Carolina Law in 1959 and the first Black chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court), Julius Chambers ’62 (famed civil rights lawyer and the first director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights) and Charles Daye, Henry Brandis Professor of Law Emeritus.

“The family is thrilled about this incredible recognition of our mother. We have long admired her intellect, eloquence and big heart, as well as her courage, dogged determination and insistence on justice,” said S. Kathryn Allen and Elizabeth Allen, Sylvia’s daughters and fellow attorneys.” It is a tremendous honor that her beloved law school and the broader UNC community is coming together to acknowledge her accomplishments. Education and a love of learning were important to our mother and she instilled these values in all of her children. We hope that her legacy and the endowed scholarship that bears her name inspire future generations of students to continue to learn and become trailblazing leaders like her.”

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