Wendy Hazelton oral history interview, August 29, 2020

Judge Wendy Hazelton

Alston Cobourn
East Carolina University

August 29, 2020
Pitt County Courthouse
Greenville, North Carolina

AC: Good morning. I'm Alston Cobourn, and I'm here at the Pitt County Courthouse in the superior courtroom with Judge Wendy Hazelton. Today is August 29, 2020 around 10 in the morning, and we are going to do an oral history interview for the LSTA: She Changed the World Community Connections Grant. So good morning.

WH: Good morning.

AC: Can you please tell us your name, your birth date and where you were born?

WH: I am Wendy S. Hazelton was born in Ahoskie, North Carolina but I grew up in Bertie County in Windsor, North Carolina. And what was the other question?

AC: Your birth date.

WH: 2/24/75.

AC: Okay. So expanding on that, can you share a little bit about your background? Where you went to school? Or some of those - yeah, foundational things.

WH: So I grew up in Windsor, North Carolina, which is in Bertie county. I am the 15th of - I'm sorry, I am the 13th of 15 kids. And a lot of people ask me is that from the same mom, the same dad? The question is yes. We have one brother that my mom and dad raised when he was very, very small. So we just include him in the 15. So yeah, I grew up in a really big family. From very humble beginnings. My mom was a stay at home mom, and my dad worked at a local lumber factory. And so he was the only source of income, but we did farming and things of that nature. We had some tough times, but we have some good times. But you know, it was just any ordinary family with ups and downs.

AC: That's great. That has a lot of great information. How and/or why are you in the position/role that you are currently in? So fast-forwarding to sort of how you and why you've gotten here.

WH: So when I was growing up, there was a brother that I never knew. And he was killed about a month before I was born. And once I find found out what happened to him, it kind of became my life's dream to kind of solve the mystery of what happened to him. Because my family really never knew what happened.

[Sound from operator adjusting equipment from 02:33-02:41]

WH: There were people that said that he was killed. There were people that said that he committed suicide. And there was no investigation as to really what happened. And so I went to the local library trying to figure out if there was some information about a police report or something. And there was nothing there, the only thing that I was able to find with the help of the librarian was a small blurb that gave his funeral arrangements. And it was very disappointing, it was quite a blow. To know that there was just there was just nothing. And if you can imagine being a family that lost a sibling or a child and not knowing what happened. And so that is what piqued my interest in the criminal justice system. That's why I wanted to go to law school, because I wanted to find out who did this. And I want it to either bring that person to justice, or give my family some, some solace as to this is what happened and this is what he did and this is why. But of course, I was never able to do that, but my crusade did not end, I wanted to help people. That was my ultimate goal. And so I went on to law school at North Carolina Central University. And I became an assistant public defender here in Pitt County and I did that for nine years. And I absolutely love my job, I was able to help people from all walks of life. And it was very rewarding. But at some point, I came to realize that my hands were tied as to how much I could help them. Because you know, I'm not the DA, so I can't say this, that or the other. I can just do what I can for my client. And I fought zealously for each of my clients. But at that point, I realized that there was more that I wanted to do. And so that is when I decided that I want it to run for district court judge. We had a position that was opening up our then Chief, David Leitch was retiring and it was going to be an open seat. And I talked to my husband about it and he was like, we're going to go for it. And so I put the word out that that's what I wanted to do. And in 2016, by the grace of God, in November, I was elected as Pitt County's first African American judge. And so I am now in a position that I can help people in ways that I could not before. And it, it makes me feel good. And to know that I've been able to make this impact on someone's life, whether I'm in traffic court, whether I am in domestic court, whether I am in juvenile court, the impact is still there. And so I use every opportunity that I can to do what I can to help people, to help kids, to help families.

AC: Well, you you've touched on this, definitely. But is there anything else you'd want to add about how you exercise your leadership skills in this role?

WH: So one of the most important things for me is for - Well, two of the things - when people come into the courtroom, because many times people do not know the process, it is very important for me, for someone that comes in and they're representing themselves, for them to understand what the process entails. So for instance, if someone comes to court and they want to have a trial, then I feel that it is my responsibility to say, well, Mr. Smith, first the state gets to go because they have the burden of proof, they have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed this crime, if they call any witnesses to the stand you get to ask those persons any questions, once they're done with their case, then it's your turn, and I go through that whole process with them to make sure that they understand, I give them ample opportunity to ask any questions that they may have. So it's very important for me that they understand and they feel like they are part of the process. The other thing is that I never want people to leave the courtroom the same way they came in. Sometimes people don't feel like they are heard when they come in, they don't feel like they receive help. And as a district court judge, I am limited as to some of the things that I can say and recommend, I cannot give legal advice. So I try my best to kind of work around it a little bit to help them as much as I can. So for instance, people that come into court with traffic citations, if they have a driving record that has not been taken care of, I'll pull that driving record and I'll ask them do you know why your license is revoked? And they either say yes or no. And so I'll say, Well, this is why this is why and this is why I'm going to write these things down for you so you can check on them to see what you need to do to take care of them. And so I give them that documentation. So I never want them to leave out the way they came in, because they may not have known. So this will give them a roadmap, if you will say to start working on what they need to work on to clear up their driving record.

AC: Yeah. Yeah, you're enabling them to help themselves?

WH: Yes, I am.

AC: What accomplishments are you the most proud of in your career or your public service?

WH: One of the things I think that has been a tremendous gift is that I get to speak to a lot of young people. And a lot of young people, that may look like me - little girls - they don't, even little guys, they don't know that something like this may be possible for them. And I share with them my story I grew up in Bertie County, I'm the 13th of 15 kids, like, my mom and dad did not finish high school, my dad could barely write his name. And so for them to see me come from very humble beginnings and to get to where I am, it gives them hope. It allows them to know that their dreams are possible. And so that has been one of the most rewarding things in this position is that I get to inspire, I get to be a beacon for young people. And it doesn't matter. I tell them all the time. It doesn't matter where you grew up. It doesn't matter what your zip code was, it doesn't matter what mom and dad did or where they are, that does not define who you are and who you can become. You just have to work hard. You have to strive you have to have a plan and go forward. So I love that.

AC: Um, why do you think it's important to see females in leadership roles? That's related to your question that you just answered to sort of.

WH: Yeah, you know, I am very big on supporting women. For so long women have been in the home. And I am so glad now to see that so many women are stepping outside of the traditional role and coming into more leadership roles and politics and community-based organizations, I think that women have a lot to offer. Just me being in this position, I bring a different perspective to the bench, I bring a different outlook when it comes to the cases, not only because of what I look like, but because of my gender, and to have a female perspective, can make a world of difference sometimes, in cases. And I think I've also come into this, this place of leadership in a time where so many women are going outside of the traditional box. And I think that's just been a wonderful thing. And I think women have a lot to offer.

AC: How was your experience with leadership been helpful during the COVID-19? pandemic? I know, you were saying there's been a lot of things in the courthouse that you all have been having to change and do differently. And so how is your leadership been helpful in navigating that change?

WH: So I was part of the COVID-19 committee that was put together by our superior court, Chief Superior Court Judge Marvin Blunt here on behalf in the direction of our Sheree Beasley. And we had discussions about how we need to open the courthouse, what provisions we need to take. And so a lot of people don't realize that the judges have been working, even though the courthouse was closed, technically, for a period of time, you know, we still had to deal with ex-parte domestic orders, we still had to deal with people at the jail doing first appearances. So our work, I'll be it on a modified schedule, but we have continued to work throughout that process. So now we're in a place where we have a system that is operating and functioning. Of course, we have some changes that we make here and there to try to even out the flow of people inside the courtroom, we're making sure that people all wear their mask, we're making sure that people are social distancing inside the courtroom. So that means that you know, our courtrooms are not as crowded as they would normally be. Our calendars are not as full as they would normally be. But we are still working and working through the cases and making sure people have access to the courthouse.

AC: Yeah, I'm sure there's a lot, a lot that's had to be done to make that happen. Are there any other ways that COVID-19 has impacted your life that you'd want to elaborate on? It's okay, if you don't, but if you have something, we'd be happy to hear it.

WH: Yeah, COVID-19, I think has impacted everyone's life, I think everyone is just ready to get back to normal life. I think everyone misses you know, having - being able to go to the beach and not worry about having to social distance, who's around them or worrying about their kids not going too far from them. Because this person doesn't have a mask on or this person is - it's been a change for everyone. So I am looking forward to the day where we can get back to some normalcy. But I think in saying that, people also have to understand that the mandates that have been put upon us, have nothing to do with politics. It is all about human nature and the safety of the people that are around us and for ourselves. And it is very discouraging to me that people have made, for example, wearing masks a political item, when it's really not. It's about protecting the people that you're coming into contact with. And also protecting yourself. No one likes wearing the mask, they're very uncomfortable. I have to sit in one all day and talk all day to people. So it's not something that I really enjoy. But I understand that if we as a society are going to get back to where we want to be. We all have a role to play to make sure that we can safely do that. So I wish that people would just come together and realize that you need to take the politics out of this because this is bigger than politics. This is about human lives. And we've lost so many lives already. So if people want to get back to the normal life, we have to abide by these mandates to make sure that we can do that safely.

AC: Yeah. I actually, I'm just going to interject this because when you mentioned you know that you grew up in Windsor, I was going to ask you, is there anything about the recent Tropical Storm Isaias? I think I said that correct. That happened like August 4 of 2020. I know there was a tornado there. Is there anything about that, that you would want to document for us about - I don't know. You know, since do you have a family there that was impacted, or just the town itself?

WH: You know, Windsor has gone through so many travesties, like the floods, and the floods and floods. And now this tornado, and the residents of Windsor have, they've gone through a lot. But there, they are a resilient people. I'm so grateful that none of my family was impacted with that tornado. But I do know that, you know, in the Indian Woods neighborhood where I grew up, there were there was a family that was impacted, and they lost what I was told they lost everything. So my heart definitely goes out to them. And I wish that I was able to get out there and do more. But I have a little one at home now that we're fostering, and I don't - I can't move the way I used to. And you don't. I don't want to leave her in the trusting of any and everybody. So it's been very difficult. It's been very difficult.

AC: Yeah. Well, I'm glad that your family is safe. Yeah. Yeah, that I think, you know, I was saying this to you earlier. So I'll just once again document this, I think that that storm, in particular, I think, you know, because it was a tropical storm doesn't sound that like that big of a deal. But there was actually a lot of damage in eastern North Carolina because of it. And so I think it's important for us to try to remember that, too. And so I guess, I also wanted to ask you know, your thoughts on whether or not it's important to use your leadership skills to further positive social change? And, and if so, do you have any other examples about that in your own life that you would like to share, and you have touched on this some already.

WH: So one of the things that I think is important, you know, 2020 has been a year, yes, for the for the books. But with everything that is going on right now with law enforcement, and men of color, how people are treated inside the courthouse. And I feel that it is important that I speak on this because you know, Sheree Beasley has done so I feel like because she has opened the door on that, that allows me the voice to be able to speak as well. I think that it is very still disheartening that we have so much social injustice still going on in 2020. I am saddened that politics have played such a big role in that. And people don't see people as just people. And I think in my position it is very important for me to continue to show that leadership. There are certain things that of course, we can't talk about as judges and we can't make statements on. But I think that it is very important and I support everything that has been said thus far with regard to what we need to do in our leadership role, to let people know that some of the things that - many of the things that are going on, this is just not, it's not right. It can be sometimes a tough place to be because you don't want to cross them. For me, I don't want to cross the line and do or say something that I'm not supposed to ethically, but as a human being as a person, as a woman of color, as someone that - as an assistant public defender to have seen you know things like that happen, it is very important for me to say that I support the calls, I support how people feel, I support wanting change, change is needed. And so if the - if I find opportunities where I can use my platform, then I definitely do. So, again, making sure that I don't cross the line. But yeah, I think is very important that we all as people, because a lot of people don't believe and I'm a firm believer that I am my brother's keeper. And at the end of the day, if you were to go back and look at history, we are all connected. If we look at the true history, we are all connected, and I wish people were able to understand that and to see that and to stop looking at the color of people's skin. And making them feel like they're less than because that's really not the case. Here in 2020, after everything that has happened, all of the people that have fought out the people that have spoken it is disheartening to know that in 2020, we're still having to fight the same battles.

AC: Yeah. Yeah, there's definitely seems to still be a long way to go. On a lot of these fronts.

WH: Yeah, unfortunately.

AC: Yeah. Is there any advice that you have for other females about how they can enact leadership in their own lives?

WH: Because I am such a strong supporter of women. I say, if you see it, you want it, go for it. So many times we allow society and what society says we should or should not do conform us. And I think it's time for us to step outside of that box. I think it's time for us to take chances. And if we fail, that's okay. That's okay. Life is full of failures. But because we fail this time does not mean we can fail the next time or we want to fail the next time. You know, doors are going to open and shut each and every day of our lives. But that's just life. So you don't stop because the door shut in front of your face. You don't stop because someone said, no, it's not your time. Because that's what was told to me. You keep on pushing. And if it's something that you see that you want, go forward, be the person of change, be the person that has a different perspective. Just be that person. So I said, I just think go forward.

AC: Mm hmm.

Unknown: Excuse me one moment.

[Interruption by tech operator to adjust equipment from 22:45-22:21]

Unknown: Keep going.

AC: Well, this actually piggybacks really well on that. You know, because you have touched on this, how do you think traditional quote-unquote gender roles have either helped or hindered you a different - at different times?

WH: I think me being in this position as a female, as a female of color has been eye-opening for a lot of people, I think, again, it allows me to bring a different perspective to the courtroom. And I think as a woman, because being the second woman on the bench, here in Pitt County, and being a woman of color, it allows me to have conversations that my counterparts may not feel comfortable having. It allows me to say things that my counterparts may not feel comfortable saying, because in reality, the majority of the people that come into the courthouse look like me. And so it gives me a broader range of opportunities to interact with people in ways that my counterparts cannot. So I definitely feel like that has been a plus for me. And it I have been very welcoming by my male counterparts. I've been very welcoming, welcomed by the community. And so it has been quite a lovely journey. I really, really enjoy what I do. And it's nice to be able to know that people received what you say. I've been told that it's nice to have a female perspective and not just a male perspective. And so I, I try to keep that in mind when I'm dealing with all types of cases. And sometimes I think it shocks people a little bit, which is good. We need another shocking in the courthouse sometimes.

AC: Yeah. Anything else that we haven't talked about today that you would like to?

WH: Well, I just want to say that so many people asked me about my journey here. And I always like to share this story with them. There was a point when I was campaigning that I decided that because someone else had gotten into the race, and I respected this person, a great deal that I was going to get out, right, that was just like, I'm not running up against him, like he's going to tear me up. He's well known in the community. And I'm just not going to do it. And I it, I was in a lot of turmoil with that decision. And so I remember so vividly that I would hear this little voice, and it was saying the same thing. Every time it was like Wendy, do not get out of the race, Wendy did not get out of the race. And I thought it was just me saying it to myself, because I really didn't want to get out of the race. But out of respect for this person I was wanting to do so. And I mean, it went on for weeks. And I was like having a fit. I was telling my husband, what is going on? Am I going crazy? And he was like, when do you just need to decide what you want to do. And I was like, I want to do and it just would not go away. And finally I was like, You know what? I can't get out of the race. And so I had a conversation with him. And I told him that I just couldn't do it. I wanted it. I want it to do what I think is meant for me. And I couldn't do it. And he understood. And he never asked me to get out of the race. But that was just a decision that I had made. And I kid you not as soon as I told him that, I've never heard that voice again. And my husband and I were out putting out signs one Sunday. I think it was a Sunday or Saturday. And he got a call that that person had passed away. It was one of the. I can't even really describe that moment. Because it was filled with so many different emotions. I was so hurt and so saddened to know that he had left us. But at that same moment, there was another voice. And it said it's yours.

AC: Take your time.

WH: And so when people ask me if this is what I'm supposed to be doing, without a doubt, a no out was placed for a reason. And I now know that voice that was that was the Holy Spirit speaking to me, giving me direction and my time of turmoil. And at that point, everything fell into place. Everything fell into place. And so I know, I am here to do his will to do his work, know that I have a purpose. And I feel very strongly that I'm living in that purpose. And I'm so grateful to Pitt County for giving me this opportunity to be there first. And I am hoping and praying that, although I am the first I will not be the last. Thank you.

AC: That was a really good story.

WH: Thank you.

Wendy Hazelton oral history interview, August 29, 2020
Oral history interview with District Court Judge Wendy Hazelton created as part of a 2020 Library Services and Technology Act Community Connections grant received by ECU Academic Library Services. Hazelton is Pitt County's first African American District Court Judge and she discusses her background along with her views on leadership, public service, and gender in the interview. Interviewer: Alston Cobourn.
August 29, 2020
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oral histories video recordings
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East Carolina Manuscript Collection
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