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LWI Lives - February 2022

Luellen Curry: The Legacy of a Legend DOWNLOAD PDF

By Abigail Perdue

For the vast majority of my time at Wake Forest, I had the great pleasure of sitting next door to the most compas-sionate and caring colleague imaginable—Associate Professor Luellen Curry. Although Luellen retired from teach-ing in the summer of 2021 after an impressive career that spanned decades, she left an indelible impact on me and every other member of the Wake Law community, especially her students. I often wondered, “How did she be-come such an amazing teacher and mentor?” This is that story . . .

Raised in the small Southern town of Lexington, North Carolina, Luellen learned at a young age that if you can be anything, be kind. Her beloved mother, Virginia Curry, was the kind of person who would seek out anyone who was alone on a holiday and either invite them into her home or bring them a delicious meal to enjoy. Self-sacrificing and resilient, Virginia had been forced to quit school to care for her siblings after her mother took ill. A talented and self-taught baker and cook, love was the secret ingredient in everything she made. She was an extraordinary woman who went above and beyond to make everyone around her feel loved and cared for, even when mon-ey was tight and times were hard.

Her only daughter was no exception. Virginia used her meager earnings as a housekeeper to ensure that Luellen never wanted for anything, all while in-stilling in her a spirit of gratitude and humility. “She always taught me that I wasn’t any better than anyone else,” Luellen shares. “She kept me grounded and considerate of other people.”

Luellen’s father was, in some ways, a stark contrast to his wife, at least on the outside. A retired member of the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., who was significantly older than his wife, Benjamin Curry was a man of few words who had a “gruff” and stoic exterior, except around “Peaches” –the pet name he gave to his cherished little girl.

With two loving parents who made her the center of their world, Luellen enjoyed a happy and rel-atively “uneventful” childhood. But while things were peaceful inside her home, racial conflict was intensifying outside. It was the sixties—the height of the Civil Rights Movement—and the Currys were living in a predominantly white Southern town. “Growing up in the 60s really left its mark on me in terms of social issues and caring about other people and having a sense of the need to do something to change the things that were wrong in the world,” she explains. She remembers her name appearing in the local newspaper when she and a few other neighborhood kids became the first students to desegregate a formerly all-white elementary school. Although the racial conflict “wasn’t nearly as bad as in other places,” it was still “eventful in small ways” and often left her feeling “in between.” She also experienced overt racism firsthand when a bus driver refused to let her board a bus to an afterschool YMCA Program. Those experiences still shape “how she thinks about racial issues” and make her more “attuned” to racial bias.

For the most part, however, Luellen had a “good” experience in school. She learned how to feel “comfortable” around “people who are not like her,” which was an “asset.” She also thrived in the classroom, excelling in her advanced placement courses and even being selected to attend the prestigious Governor’s School of North Carolina, a program reserved exclusively for “gifted” high school students. She absolutely “loved” this “rich [and] wonderful experience.” It was there, while attending weekly orchestral concerts and dance performances, that her passion for the arts intensified. She immersed herself in a community of intellectually curious young people, forging sever-al lifelong friendships and discovering new things about herself and the world.

That invigorating experience fueled Luellen’s desire to pursue a career in law. She didn’t know any attorneys personally; indeed, her exposure to the law came primarily from watching TV, especially re-runs of Perry Mason. But she “remember[s] sitting in her room and thinking about all the things that were wrong in the world and wondering what [she] could do to help.” She decided that being a lawyer would allow her to “make a difference.”

Around the same time, Luellen learned from her history textbook that Oberlin College had been the first U.S. college to admit African American students on an equal basis with white students and women on an equal basis with men. As a result, she decided to apply. For a small-town girl from conservative North Carolina, Oberlin was a different world. Although the college “viewed” itself as being more “progressive and inclusive” than it actually was, Luellen’s classes were stimulating, and there was always some kind of march, movement, or protest happening on campus. In many ways, Oberlin was a “practicum on organizing” that would inform the racial justice advocacy she later pursued. And while her official major was Government, she got an unofficial degree in grass roots activism, which taught her that “thoughtful organizing can have a positive effect.” She and her classmates also worked toward the creation of a Black Studies Department and became heavily involved in the Afrikan Heritage House. She also met the dynamic man, Carlton Eversley, whom she would eventually marry.

When Carlton later attended seminary in Chicago, Luellen attended law school at Northwestern. She “disliked” law school because of the excessive workload and the frustrating “sage on the stage” teaching style that some of her professors utilized. But “everything was interesting,” and she especially loved working in Northwestern’s legal clinic.

After law school, Carlton and Luellen settled in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Luellen worked as an attorney for Legal Aid and served on the Winston-Salem Human Rights Commission with Wake Law Professor David Logan. After she and Carlton had a son and adopted a daughter, Luellen decided to take a step back from the chaotic hours of full-time law practice to pursue something less stressful but equal-ly meaningful. Around the same time, Logan encouraged Luellen to apply for an adjunct position teaching Torts at Wake Forest. She enjoyed teaching, so she eventually applied for and obtained a tenure-track position. In 1996, she began teaching legal writing full time and remained in that role for over two decades, teaching everything from Appellate Advocacy to Race and the Law.

Luellen feels strongly that racial justice should be “carefully” and “thoughtfully” addressed in “big and small ways” across the curriculum from using racially inclusive settings and characters in first-year legal writing problems to offering specialized upper-level courses and clinics that take a deeper dive into racial issues.

But she acknowledges that it’s “hard to do” and admits that professors are “rightfully worried” be-cause they “don’t want to mess up or offend anybody or make anyone feel uncomfortable.” To ensure that students don’t feel “disconnected,” she encourages professors to “educate them-selves so they can . . . establish a comfort level and make class a safe space.”

Despite her dedication to teaching, Luellen still made time to pursue interests outside the class-room. Specifically, her lifelong passion for the arts and written word converged when she began volunteering for the biennial National Black Theatre Festival at its onset in 1989. The six-day Fes-tival is an “amazing experience” that showcases the “rich and worthwhile contributions” of Black Theatre. It was the brainchild of the late Larry Le-on Hamlin, Founder and former Artistic Director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. It includes everything from one-person plays, large-scale musicals, and an awards ceremony to workshops, a youth talent show, and a poetry jam. Through the years, Luellen has performed various roles from contract review to editing playbills. She currently works as Publications Manager and Co-Volunteer Coordinator, which has given her the unique opportunity to see hundreds of productions as well as to mix and mingle with celebrities, actors, musicians, and playwrights, including Maya Angelou, Denzel Washing-ton, Ruby Dee, Oprah Winfrey, and even the oh-“so charming” Sidney Poitier. (When he kissed her hand, Luellen briefly considered “never washing [it] again.”). Working on the Festival makes her feel a “part of something that’s so big and so great and so wonderful,” she says. “I’m grateful every day to be a part of this . . . amazing thing . . . it’s what a person with a vision can do, and [Hamlin] let us all be a part of it.”

Science fiction is another lifelong passion. On a lazy Saturday, you might find Luellen binge-watching episodes of her two favorite TV series, Farscape and Babylon 5. In fact, she became so “immersed” in Farscape that she joined online groups where dedicated Farscape fans ex-changed and commented on each other’s fan fiction. “That’s where I felt like I found my people,” she observes. Eventually, she and her online friends began meeting up at Farscape conventions and still today, they annually connect in idyllic locales like Mammoth Cave and Yosemite.

Luellen also enjoys reading, gardening, and spending time in nature. She “couldn’t live without trees,” so she and her husband bought a home surrounded by woods. “I love birds and bird-song,” she says, smiling. “I’m delighted by birds.” Her appreciation likely began as a child when a parakeet was her very first pet. Birdwatching also reminds her of her childhood when her father placed a birdhouse on the pine tree just outside her bedroom window so she could watch and listen to the birds.

Luellen’s unwavering and lifelong faith in Jesus Christ is another formative aspect of who she is. For thirty-five years, her husband pastored a “small” and “inclusive” Presbyterian church in Win-ston-Salem. But Luellen was “never a typical pastor’s wife because Carlton was not a typical pastor.” While she did attend church every Sunday, participate in a women’s group, and serve as a deacon and worship leader, Carlton supported her efforts to be her own person and have her own identity. “I wouldn’t want to live without faith,” she shares. “Faith is everything to me. . . . I strive . . . to live according to my faith, and that informs . . . who I am. . . . And I try. . . to reflect God’s love to others . . . [because] that’s what we’re called to do . . . to care for people, no matter what.”