A Brief History
On August 24, 1950, Edith Spurlock Sampson, an attorney of African American heritage, became the first African American of either gender to become a United States delegate to the United Nations. At this point in American History, the lot of Black Americans had definitely improved since the pre-World War II era, but still retained a daunting level of discrimination against African Americans in many different ways, making the appointment of Sampson to the American United Nations delegation a major milestone in African American History. (See our other many articles about African American achievement.)
Edith had been born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1901, the era of “Jim Crow.” Like many poor children (not just Black children) of the time, Edith was compelled to quit school at the age of 14 to start making a living. She got low paying jobs that required hard work, such as cleaning and deboning fish, but her desire for education led her back to school to complete her high school education. After high school she continued to work, but also attended courses at the New York School of Social Work, achieving high academic success and earning the advice of her instructors to study for a degree in law. Moving to Chicago to practice social work, Edith married Rufus Sampson and attended John Marshall Law School of Chicago, graduating with her law degree in 1925, complete with academic honors for finishing first in her class of law students.
Sampson practiced law in the Black community of Chicago while also working in the probation department of the Cook County Juvenile Court, while also studying for her degree as a Master of Law, a diploma she earned from Loyola University in 1927, becoming the first woman of any race to earn such a degree from their Graduate School and earning a place in the Illinois State Bar. Her professional career flourished as her academic career had, and by 1934 she was accredited to practice before the Supreme Court and joined the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1943, becoming one of the few African American members of that association. In 1947, her experience in government work took another turn for African American achievement when she was appointed Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County.
Having become an attorney of some renown, Edith joined a group of 26 African Americans on a tour of the world, called the “Round-the-World Town Meeting,” in which prominent African Americans met with leaders and prominent people in foreign countries. At this point in history, the Cold War between the communist bloc headed by the Soviet Union and the Western bloc headed by the United States was in full swing, and the Soviets sought to destabilize and undermine race relations in the United States by pointing out areas of inequality and discrimination against Americans of color. Sampson, well aware of the hurtful discriminatory practices encountered in the United States by African Americans retained a fierce level of American patriotism and defended her country, saying,
“The question is, quite bluntly, “Do Negroes have equal rights in America?” My answer is no, we do not have equal rights in all parts of the United States. But let’s remember that 85 years ago Negroes in America were slaves and were 100 per cent illiterate. And the record shows that the Negro has advanced further in this period than any similar group in the entire world. You here get considerable misinformation about American Negroes and hear little or nothing that is constructive.”
Her poignant eloquence had a deep effect on representatives of other nations, and was summed up by the remarkable statement, “I would rather be a Negro in America than a citizen in any other land.” Edith Sampson clearly understood the inequality of racial relations in the United States, and just as clearly understood the fact that the US had many redeeming qualities in spite of those shortcomings. Her obvious diplomatic skills landed her the appointment as a delegate to the United Nations and a spot in history. Still, her patience with the American situation was not limitless, and she began to display some level of frustration and dissatisfaction at the slow pace of racial equality improvements in the US. In 1962, Sampson became the first African American woman elected to a judgeship in the State of Illinois, winning a spot on the bench of the Municipal Court of Chicago and later on the Circuit Court of Cook County. Working as a judge seemed to restore some of her faith in the American judicial system, causing her to remark in 1969, “We learned that we could work within the establishment, the system, without necessarily knuckling under to it.” She remained on the bench until 1978, and died in 1979, having completed a wonderful American life and career in the law.
Epilogue: Other people in the Spurlock family have also achieved prominence in education, law, and entertainment.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other prominent African American attorneys do you admire? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Braun, Eric. Loretta Lynch: First African American Woman Attorney General. Lerner Publications, 2016.
Carter, Stephen. Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster. Henry Holt and Co, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Sampson at United Nations in New York, was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the National Archives and Records Administration as part of a cooperation project. The National Archives and Records Administration provides images depicting American and global history which are public domain or licensed under a free license. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 196115. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.