2006 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumna Award
Joretta Durant ’77
Her law office in Kinston is one block from where Harvey Beech practiced law and served his community for decades. He was, in fact, a distant cousin of hers.
Harvey would be pleased to see Joretta Durant receiving this award for several reasons. Having already made history by becoming the first African-American student to earn a Carolina law degree, he decided to return to his community to practice law and make himself of service to others. One of those people was Joretta-he brought encyclopedias to her family’s public housing unit when she was a child and encouraged her to do well in school.
Harvey and other mentors such as Jim Henry Jones inspired Joretta to become the first member of her immediate family to attend college. Here in Chapel Hill she made what would be two lifelong girlfriends. They pledged Delta Sigma Theta together.
Earning her Carolina business degree in 1977 was a stepping stone to law school at Emory University in Atlanta, and that degree opened the door to all kinds of possibilities across the nation. But Joretta decided to return to Kinston to practice law.
“I started out in general practice, of course,” Joretta remembers. “I started with nothing, so anybody who came through the door, I would take the case. After 10 or 11 years, I hired another attorney. I did the civil litigation and she did criminal law and real estate.”
As a young attorney, Joretta often consulted Harvey Beech for advice on particularly tough legal cases, and he was happy to provide it-and to curl her toes with stories of racial discrimination by rural North Carolina courts that she never had to face.
Joretta always knew she wanted children. But as she puts it, “the opportunity to get married didn’t present itself.” So at the age of 42, she talked with an adoption agency, and before she knew it, a woman called saying a boy and a girl-siblings-needed a home. They were hers to adopt. That very day.
Suddenly she was a mother, and it has been a love affair ever since.
And what do you think happened then? Well, the opportunity to marry presented itself. A police officer she’d taken notice of several times in the courtroom struck up a conversation. Donald Speight soon arrived at her doorstep for a date, and the commotion of children didn’t frighten him away.
Now they’ve been married four years, and they’ve recently started a club football league for the community.
“Now I’m in the process of shutting down my private practice to spend some time with my young children,” Joretta explains. “I’m not taking on any new cases. Law is a jealous mistress. It’s hard to be in private practice and do anything else.”
Yet Joretta has found plenty of time and love for her alma mater. “It is a string attached to my heart,” she says.
She and those two lifelong friends, Connie Battle and Paula Newsome, both of the class of ’77, had been attending the Black Alumni Reunion each year, enjoying the fellowship and the memories. One year, they decided they didn’t just want to meet and eat. They wanted to be of service to the University.
The three of them committed to a substantial contribution toward the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, and the center’s dance studio was named in their honor.
But if you go take a look at the plaque, you’ll see that Joretta Durant chose not to list her name there. Instead, she chose to honor Delta Sigma Theta.
“That’s what the University represents to me,” Joretta says. “Lifelong friendships.”