Birch, Adolpho A., Jr.

views updated

Adolpho A. Birch, Jr.

Lawyer, judge

Adolpho Augustus Birch Jr., a lawyer and jurist, became the first African American to hold several judicial posts in Nashville and the first to become a chief justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. During his forty-three-year judicial career, Birch covered every level of the judicial branch of government in Nashville and the state of Tennessee.

Birch was born on September 22, 1932 in Washington, D.C., the second child of Mary Jefferson and Adolpho Augustus Birch Sr. His father was an Episcopal minister who migrated to the United States from British Honduras (now Belize) in 1894 seeking an education. His mother, before she married, taught school in Virginia. When Birch was only six years old, his mother died giving birth to a third child. After his mother's death, his authoritarian father reared the children alone. His father was a strict disciplinarian and instilled in his sons many values, including determination, endurance, responsibility, the importance of education, as well as the importance of maintaining their spirituality. An attendant of the church's Sunday school, Birch was also an acolyte and thereby assisted in the liturgical service. Birch was loved by the mothers of the church, who served as a source of inspiration and encouragement.

Birch attended Lucretia Mott Elementary School. While he learned the academic subjects, he also acquired the belief that he could be someone who mattered. The trick was to commit himself to all educational opportunities. Washington, like other places in the South and across the nation, operated under the separate-but-equal doctrine. Consequently, its educational system was racially segregated. After completing his elementary and middle school education, Birch entered Dunbar High School, an all-black secondary institution known across the nation for its excellent teachers and curriculum. It was among the few high schools for African Americans where many of its teachers held terminal degrees. While at Dunbar, Birch determined that he was only interested in one profession, the law.

Collegiate and Law School Years

After graduating from Dunbar High School in 1950, Birch entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Later, he returned home and transferred to Howard University. While he attended Howard University, the university school of law and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were attempting to dismantle Jim Crow education. Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall initiated the strategy to end government-sanctioned legal racial segregation. Houston and Marshall recruited the best legal minds at Howard and from around the country to help end segregation. Two years before Birch graduated from the university, the Houston and Marshall team successfully argued the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case before the United States Supreme Court. The court's unanimous Brown decision dismantled the separate-but-(un)equal doctrine established by the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision.

A highlight of his academic career came when Birch was able to watch Marshall, James Nabrit, George E. C. Hayes, and others as they rehearsed for their argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Two years after the Brown decision, in 1956, Birch graduated from Howard University, where he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at the same time.


Born in Washington, D.C. on September 22
Receives law degree from Howard University School of Law
Passes the bar exam
Admitted to practice before the United States District Court, Middle Tennessee
Admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals
Serves as assistant public defender
Serves as assistant district attorney general
Serves as general sessions judge
Appointed criminal court judge
Elected criminal court judge
Appointed to the court of criminal appeals
Serves on court of criminal appeals
Appointed by governor to the Tennessee Supreme Court
Serves on the Tennessee Supreme Court
Serves as chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court
Retires from the Tennessee Supreme Court

Relocates to Nashville, Tennessee

Soon after earning his bachelor of arts and doctor of jurisprudence degrees, Birch was drafted; he joined the U.S. Navy and served overseas. During his tour of duty, he studied for and passed the bar exam in 1957. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1958, Birch moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked in the office of an African American attorney for office space and $12.50 per week. Later, he went into private practice with Robert E. Lillard, one of the first two African Americans to serve on the Nashville city council. The same year that Birch arrived in Nashville, leaders of and students in the African American community were in the process of preparing to bring an end to Nashville's era of racial segregation. In November and December of 1959, they began testing the city's exclusionary racial policy by holding sit-ins at lunch counters in local department stores. After several futile meetings with the department store owners, Nashville's civil rights leaders initiated their sit-in strategy the following year.

In February 1960, when Nashville college students began their sit-ins and law enforcement authorities arrested them, Birch was among the cadre of African American attorneys who represented the students. Like many in the civil rights movement, Birch understood that there was no ethical or legitimate foundation to sustain racism and segregation.

The 1960s witnessed Birch's rise in the legal and judicial professions. While still in private practice, in 1963 he served as assistant public defender. Three years later, he left private practice to serve as assistant district attorney general for Nashville and Davidson County, a position he held until 1969. Governor Buford Ellington appointed Birch, a Democrat, to the bench as a general sessions court judge in 1969, the first state judicial post held by an African American. Birch was twice reelected to the post, where he served until 1978. Then-Governor Leonard Ray Blanton appointed him to the bench of the criminal court. Birch received the endorsement of the Nashville Bar Association for his candidacy. He served in this position until 1987, when Governor Ned Ray McWherter elevated him to the court of criminal appeals. In 1988 and 1990, he was reelected to that court.

Becomes Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court

In December 1993 when Martha Craig Daugherty's seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court became vacant, Governor McWherter appointed Birch to the state's highest tribunal. With that appointment, Birch became the second African American (Justice George Brown of Memphis was the first) to sit on the Tennessee Supreme Court. In August of the following year, he was elected to the state's Supreme Court. After two years of serving on the bench of the Supreme Court, he was elected by his peers to serve as the court's chief justice, a position he held from May 1996 to July 1997. The following year he was reelected to a full-eight year term on the Supreme Court.

During his tenure on the various courts in both Nashville and the state of Tennessee, Birch received numerous accolades and awards. Birch is a Fellow of the Nashville and Tennessee Bar Associations and a past member of the Harry Phillips American Inn of Court. His commitments to other professional, civic, and community endeavors include: the conference of chief justices; state trial court of Davidson County, presiding judge; judicial conference criminal instruction committee, chair; National Bar Association, executive committee; the Napier-Looby Bar Association (formerly known as the J. C. Napier Bar Association), president; Meharry Medical College, adjunct faculty; Tennessee State University, adjunct faculty; Fisk University, adjunct faculty; Senior Citizens; Salvation Army; Kappa Alpha Psi, Nashville Alumni Chapter, polemarch; Golden Heritage Subscriber, NAACP; American Red Cross; Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boulé); standing committee, the Episcopal Church of Tennessee; and warden, St Anselm's Episcopal Church.

In 2002, the International Phi Alpha Delta Law fraternity gave him the Barbara Jordan Award, which is the fraternity's highest honor. The recipient of Howard University School of Law Distinguished Alumnus Award, in 2005 Judge Birch received the National Bar Association's William H. Hastie Award. That same year the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County voted to name its new criminal and general sessions court building for the Tennessee Supreme Court justice.

In January 2006, Adolpho Augustus Birch Jr. announced his retirement, effective on August 31. With that announcement, he ended a forty-three-year judicial career. A member of the teaching faculty at the Nashville School of Law, Judge Birch stated in an interview with the Nashville Tennessean that his "service has proved to [him] that a well-lived life depends not upon what one obtains, but upon what one gives."



Darnell, Riley C.. Tennessee Blue Book, 2001–2004. Nashville: Tennessee Secretary of State, 2004.

Laska, Lewis. "A. A. Birch." In Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Ed. Carroll Van West. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.

Lovett, Bobby L. The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.

Morris, Akeia. "Adolpho A. Birch." In A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak. Eds. Camille O. Crosby and Renee Poussaint. New York: Atria Books, 2004.


Paine, Anne. "African-American Was 'Trailblazer' on State's Court: Admirers Praise Adolpho Birch's 43-Year Career." Nashville Tennessean, 26 January 2006.

                                        Linda T. Wynn