Judge Hartsfield’s historic presence will grace Courtroom 4J

Local artist Leo Rucker unveils the portrait of the Honorable Denise Hartsfield during a special session last week.

Judge Hartsfield’s historic presence will grace Courtroom 4J
March 02
16:18 2022

Courtroom 4J of the Forsyth County Courthouse was packed last Friday evening. Every bench in the small courtroom was filled and the walls were lined with people eager for the judge to take the stand. 

But this was no ordinary day in court; the crowd was there to witness history. 

During the special session, the official portrait of the Honorable Denise Hartsfield was unveiled. Hartsfield, who retired earlier this year after serving as District Court Judge for more than a decade, is the first woman to have a portrait in the Forsyth County Courthouse. 

“I’m deeply humbled. I haven’t shed a tear since I decided to step down, but today …” said Hartfield while holding back tears during the special session. “I’m humbled that God chose me for this journey, I’m humbled that God protected me through this journey, and I’m so grateful for everyone that is in this room today.” 

A native of Winston-Salem, after high school Hartsfield attended Spelman College, where she graduated in 1976 with a degree in English. Hartsfield returned to Winston-Salem after undergrad and earned her law degree from Wake Forest University. After she passed the bar, Hartsfield worked as an assistant county attorney here in Forsyth County. Before becoming a judge, Hartsfield also served as assistant district attorney and she also worked for the Legal Aid Society of Northwest NC, a statewide nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people.

In 2002 Hartsfield was elected to serve in the 21st Judicial District when Judge Roland Hayes decided not to run for re-election. During her tenure, Hartsfield made it her mission to help young people throughout the community. For years, she led the juvenile drug treatment center and the juvenile court. She also helped launch several initiatives geared toward ending violent juvenile crime. 

Local attorney Eric Ellison, who served as Hartsfield’s campaign manager in 2002, said at the time he was a new attorney when Hartsfield asked him to lead her campaign. He said that although they had some obstacles along the way, they pushed forward and Hartsfield won by a landslide. 

“As a judge, his shoes (Judge Hayes) probably could not have been filled by anybody … but if there was anybody up to the challenge, it would be our sister Denise,” Ellison continued. “And since that time, for two decades she has served the people of Forsyth County, North Carolina. dutifully, with competency, with wisdom, with mercy, with joy, with laughter, and with love.” 

Before retiring earlier this year, Hartsfield helped launch the Forsyth County Schools-Justice Partnership, an initiative that will provide alternative responses to misbehavior in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS) and reduce law enforcement involvement in minor school infractions.

After the portrait was unveiled, Hartsfield said she requested that it hang in courtroom 4J because that’s where she saw individuals grow and families come together. Hartsfield said although there were times she had to make some tough decisions, she loved every moment she spent in the small courtroom on the fourth floor. “Why here? Why this tiny courtroom? Well, I spent many days in this place and I loved every day that I spent in it,” Hartsfield said.

“I spent many days where I saw people who were trying hard to break addictions and break curses, but just couldn’t get it together for their kids. And yes, there were days I had to terminate parental rights … but it was in this place I was also able to see kids get adopted and go to forever homes … It was in this place that I met parents that were trying against all odds to rise up and be the men they were supposed to be … It was in this place I was able to stand up and say ‘brother, I’m going to give you a chance … At the end of the day, we made families come together in this place.” 

The portrait, which was painted by local artist Leo Rucker, shows Hartsfield standing between the American flag and the N.C. state flag, while donning her signature smile and one of the many scarfs she was known to wear around the collar of her traditional black robe. Rucker said it was important that he got the scarf “just right.”

Rucker said he was honored when he got the call from Hartsfield to do the painting. Rucker also painted the portrait for Judge Hayes. 

“It’s really been a pleasure. I can look back and say that I’m the artist that had the opportunity to render the two most important individuals for me in this courthouse.”

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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