NCCU School of Law graduate and former interim dean Elaine O'Neal takes the oath as Durham's first Black female mayor at city hall on Monday, Dec. 6. Photo Courtesy of the City of Durham

NCCU law graduate becomes Durham’s first Black female mayor

December 9, 2021

This past Monday, Elaine O’Neal — an N.C. Central University School of Law graduate and former interim dean — said she looks forward to making Durham a better city for everyone in her opening remarks as mayor.

“As I think about Durham, I think about the many challenges and opportunities ahead,” O’Neal said.

“I’m truly motivated by how much we can and will accomplish when we work together to make Durham a city that works for all of us. We will leave no one behind.”

Winning 84.65 percent of the vote, O’Neal defeated city council member Javiera Caballero in the nonpartisan general election on Nov. 2.

The main issues O’Neal ran on included increasing safety, addressing housing, engaging with youth and providing economic relief and recovery.

A Durham native, O’Neal earned her bachelor’s degree in math from NCCU in 1984 and later earned her juris doctor degree from NCCU’s School of Law.

In 1994, she became a district court judge serving the 14th District and was elected to the Superior Court bench in 2011.

O’Neal worked as a solo legal practitioner before being elected to her first judgeship. She retired from the bench after 23 years of service.

Throughout her time as judge she would be a pioneer and advocate of same-sex adoption and a supporter of LGBTQ families in North Carolina.

Before running for mayor, O’Neal served as the interim dean of the NCCU School of Law from 2018 to 2020.

Faculty and former colleagues who worked with O’Neal at the School of Law showed great enthusiasm about her election and said they enjoyed working with her while she was interim dean.

Demetria Robinson, the executive assistant at the School of Law, said she was very interactive with the students and a great person to know.

“She loved the kids. She would come in every morning at 8 o’clock to stand out front and greet the kids,” Robinson said.

“She would just walk the halls, talk to the kids, etc. You could just really tell she had a genuine interest in making sure that students were successful when she was a dean here.”

Robinson said she is excited about O’Neal becoming mayor and that she is “the right one for the job.”

Kory Mercer,  a Durham native, the law school’s director of admissions, as well as an alumnus of the School of Law, was glad to hear about O’Neal becoming mayor.

“It was so refreshing to hear about her recent campaign election success and to know someone who’s been here,” Mercer said.

“It’s very rare that you find someone who’s born and raised here and transitioning into areas of leadership for the community. She knows what we need and knows the area like the back of her hand. And she is an advocate for her city.”

Mercer said, like Robinson, that O’Neal was very student-focused and compassionate about her work while as dean.

Browne C. Lewis, who was appointed dean in 2020, said it will be great for Durham to have O’Neal as mayor.

“I think that having Elaine O’Neal as the mayor of Durham will benefit the city because she truly loves Durham,” Lewis said.

“She knows what the city needs and is committed to ensuring that every citizen has the opportunity to be successful.”

Everyone interviewed at the School of Law said O’Neal will inspire young Black girls at NCCU to be impactful, trailblaze and dream big.

Charles Johnson, who worked on O’Neal’s campaign and is the director and assistant professor of the public history program at NCCU, said she will do a great job as mayor.

“I think it’s a win for the Durham community,” Johnson said.

“She is one of the brightest people I know but at the same time, she has a really really warm heart. She is a very humble person and someone that people will find very approachable. [She has] a track record of bridge-building between communities.”

Johnson, also a Durham native, has been close to O’Neal since the 90s when she first became a district court judge after his mother, Carolyn Denton Johnson, was the second African American female elected judge in Durham. Karen Bethea-Shields was the first.

“My mother was elected in ‘86 and Judge O’Neal was elected shortly after that. I’ve known her since that time. She is someone who knows and loves the Durham community,” he said.

Jim Harper, associate professor and chair of the department of history at NCCU, said O’Neal will be a great inspiration for women and is optimistic about her serving as Durham’s mayor.

“She represents women well and has been in a number of high power positions,” Harper said.

“She’s been known to be fair and she’s a good listener. I think that this is something Durham needs and her election is timely. I think that she’s going to bring positive change to Durham and I am looking forward to seeing what her administration does.”

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NCCU School of Law graduate and former interim dean Elaine O'Neal takes the oath as Durham's first Black female mayor at city hall on Monday, Dec. 6. Photo Courtesy of the City of Durham
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