Judge Roland Hayes, who passed away last week, was a giant in the community, but there was nowhere he stood taller than in the hearts of those in the city’s black legal circle.
“When I think of trailblazer, I think of Judge Hayes,” said Frederick Adams II, president of the Winston-Salem Bar Association, which is largely made up of African Americans.
Hayes died on Feb. 6, two days after his 82nd birthday. The city native became Forsyth County’s first black District Court judge when then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him in 1984. He was elected and then reelected several times by the people of the county before a state law that prohibits judges from serving after age 71 forced him into retirement in 2002. He continued to serve as an emergency judge, filling in when other judges were absent. The father of three was the “epitome of a servant,” Adams said.
“He was retired,” Adams pointed out. “He wasn’t always getting paid for the work that he was doing, but he was still (atthe Hall of Justice) anyway, still doing what he loved to do, which is serving the people of Winston-Salem.”
Hayes had a trademark sense of humor. Defendants have been known to leave his courtroom, handcuffed, yet laughing. Adams said he objected to those who mistook Hayes’ penchant for lightening the mood in the courtroom for folly.
“He was absolutely hysterical in court, very funny, but … he was more than just being quick-witted and (telling) funny stories. To say that he wasn’t also smart and reasonable would be a disservice since he was that as well,” said Adams, who had been appearing in front of Judge Hayes since going into private practice in 2005. “People sometimes forget the work that we do is serious. It’s a lot of sad stuff going on, and sometimes his humor, his insight, his perspective, could really lighten what might otherwise be sad circumstances.”
Adams and Hayes had a special bond: Adams and his wife, April Ruffin-Adams, shared their wedding anniversary with Judge Hayes and his beloved, Barbara. The Adamses were wed on August 19, 2006, the Hayeses’ 50th anniversary. In addition to his wife, Hayes also leaves behind three children and several grandchildren.
“We have an incredible set of judges, but there’s only one Judge Hayes,” Adams commented. “To know that he’s not going to be in the courtroom anymore, it’s just sad.”
Hayes was known to carry Scriptures in his pockets, and he pulled them out from time to time, to remind himself of his higher calling, despite the fact that he knew them by heart, Adams said. Micah 6:8, which reads “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” was one of Hayes’ favorites, Adams said.
Former District Court Judge Loretta Biggs served alongside Hayes on the bench for more than seven years. Biggs, who is now in privatepractice, said she held Hayes in high regard. She described him as being “very down to earth and unpretentious,” both on and off the bench.
“This was not a person who thought he should be held on a pedestal because he was a judge,” related Biggs, who later served as an appellate court judge. “I think he really saw himself as a public servant and being a judge was an honor, and he was there to do a public service. He was very, very community focused.”
Hayes was the only African American male ever to serve as a Forsyth County District Court Judge. He was the only African American on the bench twice during his career, from his appointment in 1984 until Biggs joined him on the bench three years later. Biggs’ 1994 departure rendered Hayes, who served as chief District Court judge from 1996-1998, again the lone African American on the bench, a status he maintained until his retirement in 2002.
“He made some really pioneer-like strides in his career,” said District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield, who succeeded Hayes on the bench. “For me, he weathered a lot of storms that have not completely blown away, but my storms have been anchored by all that he endured and all that he was able to take away.”
Hartsfield said Hayes’ absence is a tremendous loss not only to the legal community, but to those who will find themselves in District Court as defendants or plaintiffs.
“We no longer really have anybody to look up to. Our go-to man is gone,” Hartsfield said. “It breaks my heart. We really need an African American male presence on the bench.”
Judge Camille Banks-Payne, who was appointed to the District Court bench in 2008, also credits Hayes with paving the way for her. Banks-Payne, a city native, said she regarded Hayes as both a mentor and a cherished friend.
“He just has been the most influential man in my professional life. He held me in high regard and I felt the same way about him” she said. “He was just so proud of me, and I just cannot articulate how much he meant to me. I thought the world of him, and I know had it not been for him, the opportunity never would have come up for me.”
Banks-Payne said she learned a lot about what it takes to be an solid judge from watching Hayes in action.
“He applied a lot of common sense to his decisions, but more than anything, he was compassionate,” she related. “He recognized when someone needed punishment, but he also recognized when someone needed mercy. I’m going to miss his sense of humor and his cheery, good nature. Every time I would see him, he would be in such a good mood. He was just so full of life.”
Hartsfield said Hayes’ legacy will live on in the legal community. “It’s a great loss, but the good news is that I think he has touched enough young lawyers and middle aged lawyers and seasoned lawyers that I think we have learned something we can carry through to the next generation of lawyers,” Hartsfield said. “His story has been well told, and those of us who were listening will be able to pass some of his wisdom on.”
Judge Roland Hayes’ friends and loved ones will gather for a wake tonight (Thursday, Feb. 14) at Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church, 5095 Lansing Drive, from 6-8 p.m. The funeral service will be held Friday, Feb. 15 at 11 a.m. at the church. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to: Kids for Christ- First Baptist Church, 700 N. Highland Avenue; Roland H. Hayes Scholarship Fund at GCACC, 5095 Lansing Drive, or Winston-Salem State University Friends of the Library, 601 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.