First Black Woman FBI Agent was UNC-Chapel Hill Alumna

The Carolina Times, February 21, 1976
The Carolina Times, February 21, 1976

The first black woman FBI agent in the United States was UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sylvia Elizabeth Mathis (J.D., 1975). Hers was a life framed by a commitment to service, a dedication to family, and marked by numerous accomplishments.

In May 1975, Mathis graduated from UNC School of Law and soon thereafter passed the North Carolina Bar. But her accomplishments did not start or stop there; before her time in Chapel Hill, Mathis had also attended Fisk (1968-69) and then New York University (1969-72), where she received a Bachelor’s in Political Science. Right after law school, she stayed in North Carolina and worked for the Department of Cultural Resources.

At age 26, Mathis became the first black female FBI agent, beginning her training at Quantico in February 1976. She was also the very first female agent recruited in the state of North Carolina. At the time, only 41 agents out of a total of 8,500 in the country were women. Quoted in the February 7, 1976 issue of the Virginian Pilot newspaper, Mathis explained, “…I am interested in delving into the relation of defending of rights and enforcement of rights. Going into the FBI seemed like a natural step.”

Mathis was assigned to the New York office of the FBI where she worked as a special agent and then as an advisor to the Office of Legal Counsel (1979-80). She then returned to Jacksonville, Florida to care for her parents in 1982. Accounts vary as to whether Mathis was a Florida or North Carolina native, but while the family may have had Durham connections, Jacksonville was where her parents had called home for many years, and Sylvia had attended Bishop Kenny High School in the city.

Just the next year, in 1983, Sylvia’s life was tragically cut short by a car accident at age 34. At the time of her death, she worked as the Director of the Jacksonville Downtown Ecumenical Service Council, providing support to homeless and unemployed residents of the city. Shortly before her death, she was awarded “Ms. Metro” by the Jacksonville weekly newspaper, The Metropolis. A volunteer who worked with Mathis was quoted in the October 19, 1983 issue of the paper that, “She is a very caring person and has given a lot of her time to those who need help.” In a 1984 letter to the UNC publication University Report, Law School professor James B. Craven III remembered that she was a “rare and unforgettable” student, that he “was always proud of her and miss her now.”