Henry E. Frye was born August 1, 1932, in Ellerbe, North Carolina, to Walter A. and Pearl Motley Frye. After graduating as valedictorian from Mineral Springs High School, Frye moved to Greensboro to attend N.C. A&T State University. He graduated summa cum laude in 1953 with a bachelor of science in biology and a double minor in chemistry and air science. Following graduation, he entered the United States Air Force and was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant. He served as an Ammunition Officer in Japan and Korea. Frye rose to rank of Captain during his four years with the Air Force. While stateside in August 1956, he married Shirley Taylor.
Frye returned to Ellerbe, N.C, where he was required to pass a written test to register to vote. His failure of the test motivated Frye to become an attorney so that he could prevent others from enduring the same humiliation. Frye became the first African American to complete a full law degree from the University of North Carolina, graduating with honors in 1959. He returned to Greensboro and entered private practice. Frye then served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney from 1963 to 1965 and as a professor in the N.C. Central University Law School from 1965 to 1967. In 1968, he became the first African American elected to the N.C. House of Representatives in the twentieth century. He occupied the position for 12 years before serving as a member of the N.C. Senate from 1981 to 1982. In 1983, he was appointed as an Associate Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and in 1999 became the court’s Chief Justice, the first African American to ever hold the title. He served in this capacity until 2001 and then returned to private practice in Greensboro.
Frye has held leadership roles in many non-profit, academic, professional, and civic organizations. He has served locally as Director of the United Fund, President of the Greensboro Citizens Association, a member of the board of the North Carolina Council of Human Relations, and Chairman of the Community Unity Committee. He has also served on the board of directors of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, the Greensboro National Bank, and the American Judicature Society.