Judge Shirley Fulton knows that it makes a powerful statement when you are a “first.” As the first African-American woman to serve as Superior Court judge in Mecklenburg County — the largest judicial district in North Carolina — Fulton began to challenge preconceptions and set a precedent for courtroom professionalism when she was appointed in 1989.

Shirley Fulton

When she steps up to the lectern as Mary Baldwin University’s 169th Commencement speaker May 22, Fulton will address a graduating class brimming with firsts. Many will be the first in their family to graduate from college. Some are the first to earn a graduate degree. Several were the first to enroll in courses in criminal justice, American studies, or Renaissance studies at Mary Baldwin. One student in the crowd was the first to develop an undergraduate major in exercise science, and several others were the first to combine disciplines in innovative ways to study exactly what they intended.

“Through her life story, Judge Fulton has much to share with our graduates,” said David Atchley, vice president for Institutional Advancement at Mary Baldwin. He met Fulton when she was planning the Charlotte School of Law and remains connected to her through a non-profit foundation she created to support law students and encourage community outreach.

Fulton presided over many high-profile civil and criminal cases during her 14-year tenure in the Superior Court of North Carolina, and she continued to practice law with the private firm Tin, Fulton, Walker, and Owen until 2009. She serves as president and CEO of the Law and Community Foundation and of Wadsworth Estate, a historic inn that she restored in Charlotte, where she resides.