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Honoring A Pioneer In Law

M. Scott Peeler and Diana Florence continue their support of UNC School of Law with gifts to commemorate Sylvia X. Allen, the first Black woman to graduate from the school.

M. Scott Peeler and Diana Florence

M. Scott Peeler and Diana Florence continue their support of UNC School of Law with gifts to commemorate Sylvia X. Allen, the first Black woman to graduate from the school.

M. Scott Peeler and Diana Florence continue their support of UNC School of Law with gifts to commemorate Sylvia X. Allen, the first Black woman to graduate from the school.

When M. Scott Peeler ’93, ’97 (J.D.) first heard the story of Sylvia X. Allen ’62 (J.D.) from members of the UNC School of Law’s Black Law Student Association, he was struck by two feelings. The first was embarrassment, and the second was inspiration. 

“Frankly, I was embarrassed I hadn’t heard her story before,” Peeler said. “Diana and I immediately knew we had to change that for future students and anyone associated with the law school. Second, I was inspired. To learn about what she endured to earn her degree and what she accomplished in her career was just astounding.” 

Allen, who was the first Black woman to graduate from Carolina Law, attended law school while raising six children in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She arose early each morning to drive 90 miles to Chapel Hill and returned home each night to her family. A severe accident during one of those drives left her with life-threatening injuries, but her graduation was delayed by just one year. 

Peeler and his wife, Diana Florence ’92, ’95 (J.D.) decided to make two gifts to Carolina Law honoring Allen. One gift enables the law school to commission an artist to create a portrait of Allen, who passed away in 2012, to be installed in a prominent location in Van Hecke-Wettach Hall. The other establishes an endowed scholarship in Allen’s name. Together, the gifts ensure that future generations of law school students will learn about Allen’s story of perseverance and public service.  

Allen continued her pioneering path throughout her professional career. She was the first Black woman to practice law in Cumberland County, North Carolina, and the first Black woman in the state to be assistant district attorney. In 1977, Governor Jim Hunt ’64 (J.D.) hired Allen to serve as an assistant attorney general for the North Carolina Department of Justice, a position she held through the early 1980s. 

“I am a mother of two and served as an assistant district attorney myself, and I am so humbled and inspired by Sylvia Allen,” Florence said. “I recognize what a trailblazer she was, and I think about what she overcame. Her determination and perseverance really inspired me, and I am just thrilled to be able to be a part of this.” 

The portrait of Allen is expected to be completed in fall 2021 and will hang in the law school alongside other distinguished Carolina Law alumni and faculty. 

“This is about understanding the story of the pioneers who came before us and the need to make sure that everyone feels welcome at the law school and in the profession of law,” Peeler said. “Everyone who walks through the doors of Carolina Law should know Sylvia Allen’s story and that our community celebrates her achievements.” 

When fully endowed, the Sylvia X. Allen Scholarship will be awarded annually to a UNC School of Law student who will enhance the social, economic and cultural diversity of the school’s student body.  

Florence said she was able to pursue a career in public service because the expense of law school was lower when she attended, and she hopes the scholarship will give recipients the option to choose public service as well. 

“We have so many law students in this country who cannot follow their passion to serve because they have to follow a career path to get rid of debt,” Florence said. “That favors big law, that favors the banks, but it doesn’t favor service. My goal is to make sure that we allow people to have that ability to choose public service.” 

“I’m immensely grateful to Carolina both for my undergraduate and my law school experiences. It would be a tremendous honor to know long after we’re gone that other people are benefiting from this scholarship while also learning about Sylvia Allen.” 

Diana Florence and M. Scott Peeler
Diana Florence and M. Scott Peeler have extensive ties to Carolina with a long history of involvement, leadership, and philanthropy.  

Florence, who worked for 25 years in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and is now running to become the elected District Attorney in Manhattan, cited her clinical work at Carolina Law as essential to her understanding the importance of a prosecutor who acted with a sense of fairness. Fluent in Spanish, Florence often handled cases involving migrant workers.  

“It didn’t matter how innocent my client was or how clever an argument I could make,” Florence said. “If the prosecutor that was assigned to the case had a heart and had a sense of justice, the case went well. I’ve kept that lesson with me in my career as a prosecutor.” 

As an undergraduate, Peeler was president of the Residence Hall Association and initiated a multi-year program to create more racial diversity in Carolina’s residence halls. Now an attorney in New York, Peeler also teaches an advanced white collar law class as an adjunct professor at Carolina Law. 

Florence and Peeler’s daughter is currently a first-year student at Carolina, and Peeler serves on the UNC Law Foundation Board of Directors, the School of Law Campaign Steering Committee, and the Carolina Parents Council. Their long history of giving to Carolina includes support for Carolina Law, the Division of Student Affairs, and the School of Education. 

“The mission of Carolina is so extraordinary,” Peeler said. “It’s the people’s University. It’s for everybody to come and get the rocket fuel they need to go anywhere their potential and drive can take them. And that’s what it was for me.” 

Diana Florence and M. Scott Peeler invite all those who feel inspired by Allen’s story to contribute to the Sylvia X. Allen Scholarship Endowment Fund. Donations can be made onlineOpens in new window or by contacting Deirdre GordonOpens in new window, Associate Dean for Advancement. 

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