Saturday, December 3, marks the fifty-fourth anniversary of the day that Edith Spurlock Sampson was sworn in as the first African-American female judge by election. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1901, she graduated from high school and the New York University School of Social Work. One of her professors at the NYU School of Social Work, Columbia University Law School professor George W. Kirchwey, urged her to go to law school when he saw her aptitude for the law. When she moved to Chicago, she started night school at the John Marshall Law School and then enrolled in Chicago’s Loyola University Law School. She was the first woman to receive a Master of Law degree from Loyola University when she graduated in 1927 at the top of her class—one of many firsts in her life.Sampson went to work for Cook County, Illinois upon graduation and stayed there for eighteen years, first as a probation officer and then as an assistant referee in juvenile court. After she started her own practice in 1934, she was one of the first women admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. She organized other African American female lawyers into the Portia Club to offer free legal services to poor African American women and children. Throughout her career, she was active in professional, social and civil rights organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the NAACP. Later she was appointed as prosecutor for Cook County. In 1950, she became the first African American named to the permanent United States Mission to the United Nations. When she was 61, she was elected as judge of the Chicago Municipal Court. With that election, she became the first black woman in the United States elevated to the bench by popular vote. She served mainly in the south side of Chicago, hearing juvenile and domestic cases, and had a reputation as a caring and considerate judge. She worked for the court until her retirement in 1978 and died a year later.
Her achievements made her a pioneer for African Americans and women everywhere. Her drive to pursue her talents in spite of many obstacles and her caring service to African Americans, the poor and disadvantaged, women, her community, and her nation are inspiring. She is as relevant and progressive today as she was in her own time.