Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the Tar Heel of the Month, blazes a trail to lift up future generations

Gov. Mike Easley knew he had appointed the right person to the North Carolina Supreme Court when the new judge started giving him orders at the governor’s mansion.

Patricia Timmons-Goodson had just been sworn in as the first African-American woman on the state’s Supreme Court. At a Governor’s Mansion reception, her mother, husband, two sons, and five brothers and sisters accompanied her. For some, it was their first time at the mansion.

“It was a source of pride,” said Timmons-Goodson, 64, in an interview this month. “And I really realized it was really happening.”

When it came time for pictures, Easley noticed something about Timmons-Goodson when he looked around.

“They were all taking orders from Pat,” including himself, he recalled.

When he appointed her in 2006, “she was the only person of color on the court,” Easley said in an interview this month with The News & Observer. “And that was not going to be a problem for her. She was strong. She was smart. ... She would stand up for what she believes.”

That’s been a running theme in her life as she has blazed a trail for African-American women — from the Cumberland County Courthouse to the state Supreme Court.

She is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which recognizes people who have made significant contributions to the region and the state. She will be considered later this year as Tar Heel of the Year, the news organization’s annual honor named in December.

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Timmons-Goodson retired from the Supreme Court in 2012 and now serves as vice chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014.

“She is a very special lady and a real jewel in the North Carolina’s crown,” Easley said.

A pioneer

Her list of firsts is lengthy. When she was 29, she was the first African-American woman to be sworn in as a judge in the district, which at the time included Cumberland and Hoke counties. She became the first black woman judge in the state’s 12th Judicial District, the first black woman elected to the N.C. Court of Appeals, and then the first black woman on the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

These accomplishments didn’t arrive without challenges along the way, including politics, discrimination, and the death of her father.

But Timmons-Goodson said her struggles have been just like those of anyone else, no matter their race or gender.

She described situations where teachers valued a white male student’s answer, even though it was the same as the one she had just shared. That practice continued all the way up to the N.C. Supreme Court, Timmons-Goodson said.

Her father, Edward Timmons, used to tell her to “get over it” in such situations as quickly as she could, because they would hold her back.

“It’ll slow your progress while you’re expending energy thinking about that,” he told her.

Instead, those situations served to fuel her drive and steady presence in and out of the courtroom.

For example, Obama nominated her in 2016 to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, a 44-county region. She would have been the first black judge in the district, and organizations like the NAACP were pushing for a black judge to fill the seat that had been vacant for a decade.

But N.C. Sen. Richard Burr opposed and blocked the federal appointment, The News & Observer reported, saying Obama hadn’t honored an agreement with congressional leaders nor consulted with the state’s senators.

Timmons-Goodson said she was realistic about the political climate. While the seat remains vacant, she said her family is still proud she was even considered for the lifetime appointment.

“For me to have that historic president, with whom I have so much respect, to say to the world, and to others, that ‘Patricia Timmons-Goodson is the type of jurist that I believe we should have on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District’ means an awful lot to me.” Timmons-Goodson said.

Patricia Timmons-Goodson, pictured in 2006, was the first black woman on the North Carolina Supreme Court. She is with her husband, Dr. Ernest Goodson, who helped her put on her robe. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

A mentor to others

Beyond her accomplishments, Timmons-Goodson has been a mentor and an example for other women who are making their own paths. Just ask Cheri Beasley, who in February became the first black woman named the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court — the second black woman on the bench after Timmons-Goodson.

Beasley was serving as as a Wake County prosecutor when she first encountered Timmons-Goodson in the early ‘90s. At the time, there weren’t many black women on the bench.

“I just thought, ‘Wow,’” Beasley said. “I can’t tell you that I had ever seen an African-American woman presiding in the courtroom. I just so much appreciated seeing her there presiding.”

Beasley later appeared in her court as a Cumberland County public defender and said Timmons-Goodson always was in control of her courtroom, and she was respectful to everyone involved in the process.

“It has a global effect on the outcome of cases,” Beasley said. “Even if she doesn’t rule in the defendant’s favor, I think people generally came away feeling good about their experience and believing they were treated fairly.”

When Timmons-Goodson was appointed to the state Supreme Court the “excitement was far-reaching,” Beasley said.

“She and so many other people have not only led by example, but have been such a part of really teaching and really helping to cultivate the kind of judge and kind of leader and person that I have become,” Beasley said.

Feeling valued

In her contemporary ranch home near a lake in an upscale Fayetteville neighborhood, Timmons-Goodson goes through cabinets in her “great room” — a sitting room lined with books, family portraits, photos of her and her family with presidents, along with awards for her and her husband.

Tucked in corners in other rooms are awards that include the Order of a Long Leaf Pine, honorary degrees from three universities and plaques marking inductions into organizations, such as the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame.

Timmons-Goodson and her husband of 35 years, orthodontist Ernest Goodson, were the first African-American family to move into their Forest Lakes neighborhood.

For a trailblazer, Timmons-Goodson is soft-spoken. Her words are deliberate, and her tone is disarming.

“She can be tough and so sweet at the same time,” Easley said. “It is kind of like your mother.”

That might be a result of her upbringing. Timmons-Goodson was born in Florence, S.C. Her mother was a school secretary and later an educator, and her father was a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

As the oldest of six children, that was the “first” that shaped her the most, she said. She and her sister helped take care of the family. Their mother did the cooking, cleaning and disciplining — always with love. Timmons-Goodson was in charge of her two younger brothers, while her second-eldest sister took care of the other two sisters.

“My parents communicated to me in small ways that we were valued,” she said. “And as I have gotten older, I have come to believe that is what makes you value yourself.”

Her father was often away, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam War and special missions. When he was home, it was a treat, she said.

“I guess you might say I was a Daddy’s girl,” she said, then reconsiders. “No ‘might.’ I was a Daddy’s girl.”

Her father used to tell her that the Timmonses were smart people. “We just didn’t have any money,” he would say. “It is important on every generation to take the family a rung higher on the ladder of life.”

After his second tour in Vietnam War, the family moved to Fort Bragg and then Fayetteville, when her father was medically discharged from the Army due to a heart condition.

He died in 1975 at the age of 43, while Timmons-Goodson was in college. The moment, she said, was a turning point in her life.

“I always wanted to make him proud,” she said. “And with his death, I worked even harder to make sure that was the case.”

Today, she remains close to her mother, Beulah Timmons, now over 80 years old. They go to hair and nail appointments together in Raleigh. They are 20 years apart, she said, and sometimes people mistake them for sisters.

NC Court of Appeals judges, from left, Loretta Biggs, Patricia Timmons-Goodson and Wanda Bryant laugh as one of the attorneys makes his case before them in 2002. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The road to respect

Timmons-Goodson decided she wanted to be a lawyer by the time she was a senior at Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville. The solutions to complicated community problems often included seeing an attorney to help solve the problem.

Timmons-Goodson graduated from UNC Law School in 1979, but she didn’t pass the state bar exam. She had planned to be an assistant district attorney in Cumberland County, but had to put it off.

Instead she applied to be the district manager for the 1980 Census in a 12-county area. It was a political position extended by the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Rose.

“At the time I didn’t understand or appreciate it as a break,” Timmons-Goodson said. “But that is exactly what it was.”

Her responsibilities included setting up the office and hiring staff for the operation that grew to 700 employees.

A year later, Timmons-Goodson passed the bar exam. She spent three years as a prosecutor in Cumberland County, and then a year as a staff attorney for an organization providing free legal services, which rounded out her experience to include civil cases.

She turned 30 the first day she presided over District Court. Timmons-Goodson said she felt the pressure to do well, particularly as the first black woman judge in the district. “The way I handled matters might well determine whether or when there would be a second one,” she said.

In 2006, Easley appointed Timmons-Goodson to the N.C. Supreme Court to replace Associate Justice Sarah Parker, who had been elevated to chief justice.

“On a personal level, it meant that my father, and the other black soldiers that had fought and, in some instances, died for this country, that their efforts were not in vain,” Timmons-Goodson said. “Because I understood that they were fighting and serving so that their children and grandchildren would have the full measure of opportunities available to this country.”

On a recent Monday, Timmons-Goodson visited the Cumberland County Courthouse. “This is my home,” she said as she stood among a gathering group of judges in their quarters behind the courtrooms.

It’s been years since she worked at the courthouse, but she was welcomed like a judicial rock star. District Court Judge Cheri Siler-Mack likened Timmons-Goodson’s visit to seeing “one of those boy bands.”

“I get star-struck,” she said. Timmons-Goodson has been a mentor, role model and teacher, said Siler-Mack, who started as an assistant district attorney when the justice was presiding.

NC Court of Appeals judges Wanda Bryant, left, and Loretta Biggs hug after hearing a case in 2002. Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson looks on at right. It was the first time in state history that three black women heard an appeals case. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Commission on Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a fact-finding agency tasked with informing the president and Congress about civil rights and related laws.

While the eight-member commission still has the same role, which was key in the creation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Timmons-Goodson said it may not have the same impact as it did in earlier years and under previous administrations.

Their activities in recent years include holding a voting rights briefing in North Carolina in 2017, along with briefings in other states exploring topics such as women in prison, treatment of immigrants and conditions in related detention centers, and hate crimes.

“I think [voting rights] is the biggest civil rights issue of our time,” said Timmons-Goodson, who doesn’t expect to be reappointed after her term ends this year. “And that’s sad to say. We’d made so much progress and it appears now that we’re going backwards.’

The shift, Timmons-Goodson said, demonstrates the importance of the continued fight.

“You know, when a trail is blazed, it’s blazed with the thought that others will continue along that path,” she said.

“And as my father talked about it being incumbent upon each generation to take the family higher, it’s incumbent on those that come behind trailblazers to continue on that trail,” she said. “And blaze some new areas if need be.”

Tar Heel of the Month Patricia Timmons-Goodson

Age: 64

Hometown: Fayetteville

Family: Husband, Ernest; sons, Ernest and Aaron; mother, Beulah; three sisters and two brothers.

Education: Bachelor of Arts (1976) and law degree (1979) from UNC-Chapel Hill; Master of Laws degree from Duke University Law School (2014).

Accomplishments: First African-American woman associate justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina from 2006 to 2012; Served as an associate judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals from 1997 to 2005 and was the first African-American woman elected to the position. Served as a District Court Judge of the 12th Judicial District of North Carolina from 1984 to 1997 and was the first African-American to serve and be elected to the position.

President Barack Obama appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2014. Obama nominated Timmons-Goodson in 2016 to serve as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.