Charlye Ola Farris, an African American attorney, county judge pro-tem, and district judge of the Seventy-eighth District Court in Wichita County, Texas, was born on June 30, 1929, in Wichita Falls, Texas. She was the daughter of public school educators James Randolph Farris, Sr., and Roberta Evelyn (Bell) Farris, who named her after her great uncle, Charlie Booth. Farris’s father served as a school superintendent, and her mother was an elementary school teacher for forty-nine years. Farris attended Booker T. Washington High School where she graduated in 1945 as class valedictorian at the age of fifteen. She received her bachelor of arts in political science from Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University) when she was eighteen. After a year of teaching third and fourth graders to appease her parents, she decided to pursue a career in law.
Farris attended the University of Denver’s law school for one year until she transferred to Howard University in Washington, D. C. During her final year, Farris’s civil rights class worked on the landmark racial desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, and Thurgood Marshall, George E. C. Hayes, and James M. Nabrit, Jr., rehearsed their U. S. Supreme Court arguments in front of her class. In June 1953 Farris graduated from Howard and returned to Texas to take the state bar exam. After successfully passing the bar, she was sworn in on November 12, 1953, and became the first African American woman to be a licensed attorney in the state of Texas. Following this momentous achievement, Farris returned to her hometown of Wichita Falls where she continued to break down gender and racial barriers as the first woman and Black attorney to practice in the city.
Even in the face of her success, Farris practiced law in a town plagued by racial discrimination and injustice. Until 1962 the Wichita County Courthouse retained separate drinking fountains and restrooms for “white and ‘colored’ people.” Luncheons of the local bar association took place at a segregated hotel that was not accessible to African Americans. Despite facing racism, Farris persevered. Members of the Wichita County Bar Association unanimously elected her on July 7, 1954, to serve as county judge pro-tem, thus possibly making Farris the first African American to serve as a judge in the South since Reconstruction. When she was elected, the local newspaper did not include a photograph of her in their announcement of her victory due to their policy against publishing photographs of African Americans. In 1955 she opened her own law office in the east side of town near the railroad tracks, but after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, she was able to lease office space in downtown Wichita Falls near the courthouse.
In 1973 Farris adopted her son, Troy K. Farris, and in the same year she was selected to the position of acting district judge of the Seventy-eighth District Court in Wichita County. She also served on the board of directors for the Wichita County Bar Association and chaired the District 14-A Grievance Committee of the State Bar of Texas. She operated a successful solo legal practice for more than fifty years. Farris received many awards throughout her legal career, including the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award (2003) and the Texas Bar Foundation’s Outstanding Fifty-Year Lawyer Award (2004) among others.
The Wichita County Bar Association established a scholarship to honor Farris in 2000. Management of the fund was assigned to the Wichita Falls Area Community Foundation in 2001. The Charlye Farris–Wichita County Bar Association Scholarship helps students interested in law to attend college and law school and is awarded each year at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Prayer Breakfast held by the city of Wichita Falls. In 2006 Farris was appointed to the Board of Regents of Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. Her appointment was a significant achievement as it was one of the schools she was not allowed to attend due to her race decades earlier.
Farris was very active in the Wichita Falls community. She was a member and trustee of the Gilbert C.M.E. Church and served as the director of community organizations such as the North Texas Parent and Child Development, Inc.; the North Central Texas Community Healthcare Center; Work Services Corporation; and the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra, Inc. As a result, the Wichita Falls school district, which she could not attend as a child due to her race, named the Farris Early Childhood Center in honor of Farris and her mother, Roberta.
On February 18, 2010, Charlye Ola Farris passed away in her hometown of Wichita Falls. She was buried in Crestview Memorial Park. Her work and persistence helped pave the way for success for other women and minority lawyers. The Texas Historical Commission honored her with a historical marker in 2011. Installed in front of the Wichita Falls County Courthouse, the marker notes, “Her life is a testament to the determination and the impact one individual can have on a community, state, and nation.”