Edith Sampson (c. 1901-1979) became America's first African American female judge after succeeding as a social worker, a lawyer, and an international advocate for democracy and free market trade. As a representative of the State Department during the Cold War, Sampson traveled around the world, defending the United States against Soviet propaganda. As a judge, she was known as a compassionate, efficient, and powerful mediator.
Trained as Social Worker
Sampson was born Edith Spurlock in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 13, but the exact year is unknown. It was probably earlier than 1901, because some sources say her younger brother was born in 1900. She was one of eight children born to Louis Spurlock and Elizabeth McGruder Spurlock. Louis Spurlock was a shipping clerk in a cleaning and dying business. Elizabeth Spurlock worked at home making buckram hat frames and switches of false hair. The family worked hard, owned its own home, attended church, and obeyed the law. Sampson told Readers Digest, "I suppose we were poor, but we never knew it. We wore hand-me-down clothes, and we all worked."
At age 14, Sampson left school and got her first full-time job, cleaning and deboning fish in a fish market. She eventually resumed her education, earned good grades, and graduated from Peabody High School.
After Sampson graduated, her Sunday school teacher helped her get a job with Associated Charities, a New York social work organization. Associated Charities arranged for her to attend the New York School of Social Work. There, she excelled in a criminology class taught by George W. Kirchwey of Columbia University School of Law. He told her she would make a good attorney and advised her to enroll in law school. Instead, Sampson completed her social work degree.
Excelled in Law School
After she graduated from college, Sampson married Rufus Sampson, a field agent for the Tuskegee Institute, and the couple moved to Chicago. Sampson worked with the Illinois Children's Home and Aid Society and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). She worked with neglected and abused children, placing them in foster and adoptive homes. When Kirchwey passed through Chicago to deliver a speech, her former instructor again encouraged her to pursue a law career. This time, she followed his advice and enrolled in the John Marshall Law School, attending classes at night while working full-time as a social worker. She excelled in law school and received a special dean's commendation for ranking highest among the 95 students in her jurisprudence class.
Eventually, her marriage to Rufus Sampson ended in divorce, but she retained his name throughout her life. She never had children of her own but raised her sister's two children after her sister died.
Sampson received her bachelor of law degree in 1925 and took the bar exam but failed. She attributed the failure to overconfidence and later said failing the exam was the best thing that could have happened because it motivated her to work harder. She enrolled at Loyola University law school and in 1927 became the first woman to earn a master of law degree from that university. That same year, she passed the bar exam and was admitted to the Illinois bar.
While in graduate school at Loyola, Sampson had worked as a probation officer. In 1927, she opened her own law firm on the south side of Chicago while also working as a referee for the Juvenile Court of Cook County. She said working with the court taught her the practical side of law. Her law firm specialized in criminal law and domestic relations, offering legal advice to many poor, African American people who could not otherwise afford it.
In 1934, Sampson was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. She was one of the first African American women to earn this distinction. In 1938, she and Georgia Jones Ellis became the first African Americans to join the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Women Lawyers. Sampson joined many other professional and civic organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Council of Negro Women. In 1947, Sampson was appointed assistant state's attorney of Cook County.
In 1934, Sampson married attorney Joseph Clayton. The couple worked as law partners for more than ten years. Clayton died in 1957.
During the late 1940s, when Sampson was serving as chairwoman of the executive committee of the National Council of Negro Women, she was selected to represent the group in a 72-day world lecture tour. The tour included representatives of various American groups who spoke out on current problems in radio broadcasts called "America's Town Meeting of the Air." Its purpose was to promote American democracy, countering Soviet Cold War propaganda.
Sampson overcame stage fright during the tour and spoke eloquently about democracy. She was often confronted with difficult questions about U.S. civil rights. The Soviet Union used America's record of racial discrimination as a tool against the United States. Sampson countered many misconceptions about African American people in America. She later commented that people seemed to think that African Americans were living behind barbed wire. Sampson pointed out the progress African Americans had made since emancipation and emphasized that she was a powerful example of a successful, educated African American.
When people criticized the United States for its civil rights record, she acknowledged problems, but defended democracy for what it offered African Americans. The New York Times reported that at one stop she quieted a heckler when she said, "You ask, do we get fair treatment? My answer is no. Just the same, I'd rather be a Negro in America than a citizen of any other country. In the past century we have made more progress than dark-skinned people anywhere else in the world."
During a speech Sampson made in Pakistan, the prime minister's wife collected $5,000 to offset Sampson's tour costs. Sampson graciously accepted the gift, then promptly donated it to the League of Pakistani Women for charitable work.
When the tour ended in 1950, the World Town Hall Seminar became a permanent organization to promote democracy around the world, and Sampson was named its president. The trip changed her life. Although she still practiced law, it was no longer the sole focus of her career. She devoted herself to promoting peace and world unity.
Worked With United Nations
Sampson's work with the World Town Hall Seminar caught the attention of President Harry S. Truman, who appointed her an alternate delegate to the fifth regular session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. She was the first African American woman to be named an official American representative to the U.N. She served on the U.N.'s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, which worked for land reform, reparation of prisoners, repatriation of Greek children, and efforts to stop governments' jamming of radio broadcasts. She was reappointed alternate delegate in 1952 and later was named member-at-large of the U.S. Commission for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) during President Dwight Eisenhower's administration.
Sampson served as a spokesperson for the State Department throughout the 1950s. She visited Europe, the Middle East, and South America, addressing the status of African Americans. Ebony magazine called her "one of the country's most potent weapons against Communist distortion of the Negro's status in the U.S." Sampson strongly criticized Soviet distortions of the lives of African Americans. She once told Soviet U.N. delegate Andrei Vyshinsky, "We Negroes aren't interested in communism. We were slaves too long for that."
Sampson acknowledged racial discrimination in her speeches, but she chose to emphasize the positive aspects of democracy for African American people. She described a 1950 trip to Austria with Ebony magazine: "There were times when I had to bow my head in shame when talking about how some Negroes have been treated in the United States… . But I could truthfully point out that these cases, bad as they are, are the exceptions—the Negro got justice for every one where justice was denied. I could tell them that Negroes have a greater opportunity in America to work out their salvation than anywhere else in the world."
In 1961 and 1962, Sampson was appointed to serve on the United States Citizens Commission on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1964 and 1965, she was a member of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Private Enterprise in Foreign Aid.
Pioneered as Judge
Sampson was a friend and supporter of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. This relationship helped her when she ran for a judegship and Chicago African American leader William Dawson opposed her. In 1962, Sampson became the first African American female judge in the United States when she was elected associate to the Municipal Court of Chicago. She handled divorce, custody, and other domestic disputes. She was known as a mediator who tried at all times to preserve families.
In 1966, Sampson was elected to a seat on the Circuit Court of Cook County, where she heard landlord-tenant disputes. She was the first African American woman to hold this position. She served poor neighborhoods of Chicago and quickly moved to clear up a huge backlog on the court docket, hearing as many as 10,000 cases a year. Although she handled cases quickly, she took an interest in the parties, offering social services referrals when needed. She tried to avoid evicting tenants if it was clear that they could not afford to pay their rent.
Some civil rights leaders criticized Sampson, saying that she downplayed the barriers African Americans faced and did not sufficiently support the country's civil rights movement. Sampson described her philosophy in Reader's Digest: "Don't tear down the old homestead until you have a clear idea of what you'll build in its place. Just because you are impatient with moving at only five mile an hour, it doesn't follow that accelerating to 150 will solve your problems. We are beginning to move. We haven't reached cruising speed yet; but we are moving toward a better America at an ever-increasing pace."
Sampson received several honorary degrees, including a doctor of law degree from the John Marshall Law School. She retired from the bench in 1978. Her favorite pastimes included interior decorating, playing canasta, canning preserves, and making jelly. Although she had no children, she was very close to her nieces and nephews. Two of her nephews became judges: Oliver Spurlock of Chicago and Charles T. Spurlock of Boston. Sampson died on October 8, 1979, in Chicago.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13, Gale Research, 1996.
Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire, Yorkin Publications, 1999.
New York Times, October 11, 1979.
Gordon, Kathleen E., "Edith S. Sampson," http://www.stanford.edu/group/WLHP/papers/edith.html (February 11, 2003).