Sammie Chess Jr., former civil rights lawyer and Superior Court judge, will retire Oct. 31 after 47 years in the legal profession. But Chess is going to hang up a new shingle and keep on helping people.
His goal is to help struggling young people get an education and to learn a trade or profession.
Chess, 73, will end a 16-year career as a state administrative law judge on Oct. 31, the position he took after serving four years as the state’s first African-American Superior Court judge.
“I sort of wanted to keep this (retiring) quiet,” he said.
Still looking fit and trim at 6 feet tall and weighing 170 pounds, Chess can sometimes be found doing a little “workout” in his office with two five-pound bar bells that he keeps beside his desk.
Chess, who grew up in the slums of High Point, became a high school dropout and ended up shining shoes at a barber shop, said school principal Samuel Burford instilled ambition in him to get an education. Burford, principal at William Penn High School, persuaded Chess to return to school, and later helped him get into N.C. Central in Durham, where he earned undergraduate and law degrees.
Chess spent two years in the U.S. Army and opened his law practice in 1960. He soon became involved with major civil rights organizations that were attacking segregation. Chess became a leader in helping desegregate schools, theaters, hospitals and other places in Guilford County.
Eleven years late, Gov. Robert Scott named Chess to the Superior Court bench.
Soon, he hopes to be opening an office at 1122 Montlieu Ave., where he practiced law for many years before becoming a judge in 1971. That will be headquarters for Opportunities Unlimited. “We’ve got to save the kids. Somebody is going to lead them, and it is important that someone with high values lead them,” Chess said.
He will try to enlist other retirees to mentor young people in business skills and other jobs. “There are a great many successful people out there who could give a few hours a week to help,” he said. “I want to try to ignite a fire under people who have gone to the sidelines.”
He added, “We might try to give some small grants to help young people buy what they need to start their own business. It might be a lawn mower or a weed-eater, or stuff needed to start their own window cleaning business,” Chess said. “I am impressed by projects like this in underdeveloped countries.”
Chess said, “I want to bring hope to those who have lost their way in life. I want to pull in this generation that knew how to make brick without straw and have them help our children.”
Opportunities won’t stop with becoming small-business owners, he said. With sufficient help , a college education will not be out of the question for many of these youngsters, Chess said. For those who don’t pursue college, “they can be taught to work, and given help along the way,” he said.
Something needs to be done to halt the “decadence of society.” If new generations of young people don’t learn honesty and how to work for a living, “the planet Earth will be so decadent there will be nowhere to hide,” Chess said. “The erosion of morality is eating the heart out of society. Anything is alright,” he said.
“We have the duty to do something. We are our brother’s keeper. We need a few people dedicated to being their brother’s keeper and do monumental things to help others. We’re all tied together and should have an interest in seeing others do well,” he said.
“I thought going to college was impossible, but my principal showed me how I could work and go to college. My father, who was my hero, said ‘don’t be afraid to go the extra mile and work harder than the next guy,’” Chess said.
“Today, children don’t have examples of seeing parents getting up and going to work. They just get a check. Work is a taught behavior, and we want to teach it to as many kids as possible,” he said.
It’s easy to see why Chess isn’t really retiring, just changing addresses.
Contact Bob Burchette at firstname.lastname@example.org
A glance at Sammy Chess
Parents: Susanna and Sammie Chess Sr.
Educated: High Point public schools, and earned undergraduate and law degrees at N.C. Central, finishing law school with honors.
Military duty: Two years in U.S. Army.
Occupations: Attorney, 17 years; Superior Court judge, 4 years, and administrative law judge, 16 years.
Honors: First African-American Superior Court judge in North Carolina and possibly in the South; member of National Bar Association Hall of Fame and the African-American Cultural Complex’s Hall of Fame in Raleigh; first black Superior Court judge to have his portrait hung in a North Carolina courtroom (the Judge Edward Washington Courtroom in High Point); winner of National Association of Law Judges Rosskopf Award for Judicial Professionalism and Ethics; former president of High Point Bar Association; and meritorius service awards from the YMCA, the NC Association of Human Rights Works and High Point Business and Professional Men’s Club.