Judge Norma Lee Barkley remembered as community trailblazer

By Susan Canfora
Posted 4/13/21

Wicomico County Orphans’ Court Judge Norma Lee Barkley is being remembered as a trailblazer, a fine example for women to emulate and a caring soul.

The first African-American judge of …

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Judge Norma Lee Barkley remembered as community trailblazer


Wicomico County Orphans’ Court Judge Norma Lee Barkley is being remembered as a trailblazer, a fine example for women to emulate and a caring soul.

The first African-American judge of Orphans’ Court, Barkley was impressively accomplished and deeply proud of her family “which she brought together every year by organizing the Wright, Williams Dashiell family reunion,” according to her obituary.

“She was very good with us, happy, always smiling and grinning,” said  Regina Barkley Sterling, who the judge and her husband, the late Marion “Bud” Barkley, raised with another niece, Linda Washington, who is deceased.

“She was very hands-on with the grandkids. She used to give me advice about a husband or boyfriend. She used to say, ‘Don’t let your husband go somewhere by himself. Always  go with him. Don’t let him go alone to be safe in case anything happened to him.’ She was a little bit strict on us,” Sterling said, remembering she and Washington had the responsibility of cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes after the Barkleys cooked meals. Marion Barkley died in 2017.

“She bowled. She was always in a bowling league. Otherwise she was  with her groups, her Masonic group, Shriners, all of her other community activities. She drove a school bus at one time. They were both  bus drivers. They became bus drivers. She drove, he drove for a while, then somebody asked her about being a judge. She ran in 1982. She won that and she did that. She just retired from Orphans’ Court in November 2018 so she worked until she was around 88,” Sterling said.

Shanie Shields of Salisbury rode Barkley’s bus.

“It was No. 33. She was no-nonsense. You had assigned seats. On Friday you had to clean your space. There couldn’t be any pieces of paper or wrappers of any kind left on that bus. If she said, ‘No talking’ there was no talking. When she spoke on that bus you obeyed. You didn’t leave any mess on her bus,” Shields recalled.

“There wasn’t too much sneaking with her. She’d look in that mirror. There were no cameras on buses in those days but there was a mirror. If they told you to shut up, you shut up. She was very strict, a no-nonsense person, but that’s what children need,” Shields said.

Shields credited Barkley for being the first African American bank teller in Salisbury and becoming involved in the Democratic Club of Wicomico County. Her husband was in charge of the former English’s Catering.

A native of Fruitland, Judge Barkley retired from the court after 36 years and died on April 3. Viewing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, April 16,  at St. Paul AME Zion Church on Delaware Avenue in Salisbury. A private funeral will be on Saturday, April 17, at the church.

Born on Feb. 4, 1930, to Sinclair and Muzzalee Wright, Barkley, the fourth of nine children,  was remembered by Karen Lemon, Wicomico County Register of Wills, as a woman who “always brought common sense to the bench and had a very strong belief that nothing was more important than family.”

“She lectured many family members when they were arguing about something they thought they should receive when somebody died and she was quick to tell them that if they hadn’t worked for it, they weren’t entitled to it. I had the privilege of working with Judge Barkley for over 24 years. I,, as Register of Wills, and she as Chief Judge of the Orphans’ Court for Wicomico County. The Register of Wills and Orphans’ Court is  responsible for overseeing estates after a person dies,” Lemon explained.

Orphans’ Court is informal and, at times, family members “just need to be heard and Judge Barkley had the ability to see into peoples’ hearts and appreciate their feelings,” Lemon observed.

“Her knowledge of our community and its people was priceless. Her community service and principles of leadership should not go unnoticed,” Lemon said.

With her husband, Barkley was a founding member of the Tri-County Martin Luther King Coalition and the couple organized and oversaw the annual banquet in Salisbury, in King’s honor.

“She had a good life and I’m sure she is now right where she wants to be, with her beloved Bud and other friends and family members,” Lemon said.

Sharon Morris of Salisbury, who knows the family, described the judge as “a leader who created a pathway for other black women.”

“She was steadfast in faith, strong in business and diligent in community affairs,” Morris said.

Former Wicomico County NAACP President Mary Ashanti said Barkley was a loyal supporter and member of that organization.

“She was a strong person but she was an uplifting person. She was very pleasant, a great role model, especially for women. She was very involved in the community, very involved in all kinds of organizations that helped people and uplifted  people,” Ashanti said.

“She cared about people. If there was a way she could help you, she would.”

Mike Dunn, President and CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee, served with Barkley on The Daily Times Editorial Board in the early 2000s and remembered her important contributions to the newspaper’s opinion columns.

“Judge Barkley and her late husband “Bud” were two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Each served their community with distinction, and with the utmost humility,” Dunn said. “They were kind to a fault. Each of them would greet everyone they saw so warmly, and with a smile. Their legacy in this community is one we can all learn from.

“Judge Barkley had a sharp mind, and a keen understanding of what was needed to keep her town, our town, moving forward,” Dunn  said. “On the Editorial Board, her knowledge and understanding of the issues that the community faced was always spot on.”