UNC School of Law Alumni Establish Sylvia X. Allen ’62 Diversity Scholarship to Honor First Black Female Graduate

June 17, 2021

Students who enhance the diversity of the law school are eligible for the scholarship.

Sylvia X. Allen ’62 was the first Black woman to graduate from Carolina Law and one of the first three female Black lawyers in North Carolina.

To honor a woman who was a public servant, civil rights activist, and 1962 graduate, UNC School of Law has established the Sylvia X. Allen Scholarship Endowment Fund. Two generous alumni, M. Scott Peeler ’97 and Diana Florence ’95, launched the scholarship with an initial gift, and now invite others who are inspired by Allen’s story to contribute to grow the scholarship fund. When fully endowed, the scholarship will be awarded annually to a UNC School of Law student who will enhance the social, economic, and cultural diversity of the school’s student body.

Peeler first learned of Allen’s story from members of the UNC School of Law’s Black Law Student Association. “Everyone who walks through the doors of Carolina Law should know Sylvia Allen’s story and that our community celebrates her achievements,” says Peeler. 

Allen was the first Black woman to graduate from Carolina Law and one of the first three Black female lawyers in North Carolina. She spent her childhood in Jamaica and was inspired to become a lawyer by her great uncle, a circuit court judge. Allen enrolled in law school in 1958, after the birth of her sixth child. She commuted to Chapel Hill from Fayetteville, N.C., 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.

Allen worked in private practice in Cumberland County, N.C., and was one of three first Black female lawyers to be admitted to the Cumberland County Bar Association in 1965. In 1969, District Attorney Charles Rose ’64 appointed Allen to his staff. She was the first Black female Assistant District Attorney in Cumberland County and in the state. In 1977, Governor Jim Hunt ’64 hired Allen to serve as an assistant attorney general for the North Carolina Department of Justice, a position she held through the early 1980s.

M. Scott Peeler ’97 and Diana Florence ’95 met at UNC School of Law and were married in 1998.

In 1995, Carolina Law Professor Charles Daye published an article in the North Carolina Law Review about the school’s Black and other minority students and alumni, including Allen.

“Her life, like that of many of the pioneers, is filled with firsts,” wrote Daye. “She was the first African-American female graduate of the law school; first African-American female practitioner in the Fayetteville/Cumberland County area, where she was in private practice until she was appointed Assistant District Attorney; and first woman and first African-American to become an Assistant District Attorney in North Carolina. She has been and remains an activist for causes in her home area including fair housing, improved human services, relief from homelessness and poverty, and is involved in a broad range of civic affairs.”

“This is about understanding the story of the pioneers who came before us and the need to make sure that everyone feels welcome at the law school and in the profession of law,” says Peeler.

Florence, who worked for 25 years in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and is now running to become the elected District Attorney in Manhattan says she was able to pursue a career in public service because the expense of law school was lower when she attended and because of pioneers like Allen who came before her. She hopes that the scholarship will give recipients the opportunity to follow their passion and not make career decisions based on paying off debt.

“It would be a tremendous honor to know long after we’re gone that other people are benefiting from this scholarship while learning about and celebrating the life of Sylvia Allen,” says Florence.

Allen died in 2012 at the age of 88. In addition to the scholarship, Peeler and Florence have also commissioned an artist to create a portrait of Allen–a trailblazer and a great example of what it means to be a Carolina lawyer leader–that will be prominently displayed in Van Hecke-Wettach Hall to inspire future generations of aspiring lawyers. Members of Allen’s family were involved in choosing the artist and making sure that Allen’s perseverance and determination are truly captured in the final portrait.

The portrait of Allen is expected to be completed in fall 2021 and 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.

Carolina Law alumni, friends of the Allen family, and supporters are invited to honor Allen with a gift to the scholarship endowment fund.

Read more about Peeler and Florence’s commitment to UNC-Chapel Hill and Carolina Law.