Sampson, Edith S. 1901–1979
Edith S. Sampson 1901–1979
Attorney, United Nations delegate, circuit court judge
Edith Sampson’s life was a series of personal and social milestones. The first black women to preside over a courtroom as a judge, Sampson served the state of Illinois—and the entire United States—in a variety of roles spanning five decades.
Sampson believed that actions speak louder than words. She preferred to be optimistic about the strides black Americans had made in the twentieth century rather than bitter about the inequities that remained even after the dawn of the civil rights movement. In 1968 Sampson told the Reader’s Digest that her own experiences as a lawyer, an American spokesperson, and a delegate to the United Nations proved that “the doors have not been opened, but they have been unlocked. If we press against them, they will open.”
Sampson’s death in 1979 went largely unnoticed outside of Chicago, where she had lived and worked since 1922. In the prime years of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, some radicals dismissed her accomplishments, calling her a “handkerchief head” for her remarks praising America. Sampson answered these charges in the Reader’s Digest, declaring that America is “certainly rich enough, and we should be big enough, to see that opportunity is the right of all. More understanding and more opportunity must be offered by one side. The other must realize that equal rights mean equal responsibility.”
Sampson was born Edith Spurlock on October 13, 1901, one of eight children of a cleaning shop employee who earned just $75 per week. Her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was one of the urban destinations for blacks leaving the South in search of better economic opportunities. Sampson described her family as law-abiding and hardworking. “I suppose we were poor, but we never knew it,” she told the Reader’s Digest. “We wore hand-me-down clothes, and we all worked. To supplement family income, my mother made hat frames. I worked in a fish market. We ate regularly, slept in clean beds, went to church.”
Public education was not compulsory in those times, and young Edith went to work full time while still a mere child. She returned to school, however, and managed to graduate with excellent grades from Pittsburgh’s Peabody High. As a student, Sampson experienced firsthand the slurs and foul treatment associated with racism, but as she advanced in her education, she learned to rise above the remarks.
Born Edith Spurlock, October 13, 1901, in Pittsburgh, PA; died October 8, 1979, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Louis (a cleaning shop employee) and Elizabeth A. (McGruder) Spurlock; married Rufus Sampson (field agent for Tuskegee Institute; divorced); married Joseph E. Clayton (an attorney), November 5, 1934 (died, 1957). Education: Attended New York School of Social Work; Marshall Law School, B.S., 1925; Loyola University School of Law, LL.M., 1927.
Worked for Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and for Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society while in law school; Juvenile Court of Cook County, IL, 1925-42, began as probation officer, became referee; attorney in private practice in Chicago, IL, 1927-62; World Town Hall of the Air radio show, member speaking on behalf of black Americans at lectures in foreign countries, 1949-50, became panel president; United Nations General Assembly, alternate delegate, 1950 and 1952; Cook County Circuit Court, judge, 1962-78.
Member: Chicago Bar Association, National Bar Association, National Association of Women Lawyers, National Council of Negro Women (former chair of executive committee and committee on international relations), League of Women Voters.
Selected awards: Recipient of several honorary degrees.
A Sunday school teacher brought Edith to the attention of Associated Charities, a social work organization based in New York City. Associated Charities helped cover the cost of sending the young scholar to the New York School of Social Work for advanced study. There she earned her best grades in criminology. Her teacher, George W. Kirchwey of the Columbia University School of Law, encouraged her to give up social work and study to become a lawyer.
She continued her social work, however, and moved to Chicago in the early 1920s. As luck would have it, Dr. Kirchwey had moved to Chicago too, and their paths crossed again. This time he convinced Edith to go to law school. She enrolled in night classes at Marshall Law School and kept her daytime jobs with the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society. While still in school she married Rufus Sampson, a member of the Tuskegee Institute. Although their marriage ended in divorce, she continued to use his name for professional purposes.
Sampson’s life was further complicated during her law school days by the death of her sister, who left two children for her to raise. Nevertheless, she persevered with her studies and became the highest-ranking student among 95 in a course on jurisprudence. After earning her law degree, she felt quite confident of her acceptance to the Illinois bar. To her astonishment, she failed to pass the bar examination. She returned to school—this time to Loyola University Law School—to earn a Master of Laws degree. This she accomplished in 1927, becoming the first black woman to receive an LL.M. Then she passed the Illinois bar.
As early as 1925 Sampson began an association with the Juvenile Court of Cook County, serving as a probation officer and a referee. Two years later she opened her own law firm on the South Side of Chicago, where she specialized in criminal law and domestic relations. In 1934 one of her cases took her all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That same year she was married again, to a fellow attorney named Joseph E. Clayton. They worked as law partners for more than a decade in Chicago.
Sampson’s career came to public attention in 1949, when she was invited to participate in the World Town Hall of the Air lecture tour. A series of radio broadcasts, the World Town Hall of the Air took its members all across the globe, mainly for the purpose of countering Soviet propaganda about the United States. Sampson had to pay her own way—$5,000, a vast sum for the times—but she soon became known as one of the most eloquent and unflappable of the Town Hall speakers. At almost every stop she was confronted with difficult questions about civil rights for minorities in America.
Asked by a heckler about the plight of blacks in the United States, Sampson at one point replied: “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.” That quote, as reprinted in the New York Times, became Sampson’s best-known assessment of race relations in her home country as compared with the rest of the world.
When the World Town Hall of the Air tour returned to America in 1950, the organization was made permanent. Sampson was elected as its president. During that same year, U.S. president Truman designated her an alternate delegate to the fifth regular session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Thus Sampson became the first black woman to be named an official American representative to the United Nations. She served with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee, and she was reelected in 1952.
The United Nations provided another forum for the former Soviet Union’s derision concerning America’s treatment of blacks. At one point during her tenure with the General Assembly, Sampson curtly told delegate Andrei Vyshinsky, as quoted in the Reader’s Digest: “We Negroes aren’t interested in communism—we were slaves too long for that.”
Sampson’s championship of democracy and the free market made her very popular in political circles with the white majority and upwardly mobile blacks. By the early 1960s she was assistant corporation counsel of Chicago, a well-known figure in the town in which she had lived for forty years. The local Democratic party nominated her in 1962 to fill an unexpired term as a circuit court judge. She won the judgeship in a landslide and was elected by an even larger vote to fill the seat for a six-year term in 1964.
Sampson was the first black woman ever to sit as a circuit court judge, but she called little attention to her achievements. The position was not glamorous—in fact, her court was one of the busiest in the nation, serving downtown Chicago and its various neighborhoods. Because she dealt primarily with poor, working people who could ill afford to stand around courtrooms indefinitely, Sampson rarely put off her judgments until another day. Sometimes she would hear as many as 100 cases in a single session, some of them lasting only a few minutes. During the 1960s Sampson is said to have heard as many as 10,000 cases each year.
Throughout her years in the city’s municipal court system, Sampson presided over divorce courts, traffic courts, and landlord-tenant relations courts. She gained acclaim for her superior mediating powers, her heartfelt sincerity, and her humanistic approach to rendering judgments. Virtually a celebrity in Chicago, Sampson watched as times changed around her. Fringe groups of black activists soon accused her of being too moderate, of supporting the white power structure and the big-money elite. Sampson preferred to think of herself as a pragmatist who was participating in a one-step-at-a-time process of social change. She elaborated on her philosophy in the 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 miles an hour, it doesn’t follow that accelerating to 150 will solve problems.” She added: “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.”
Judge Sampson retired from the bench in 1978, just a year before her death. She had long been a sought-after speaker to bar associations and youth groups, and she received several honorary degrees. She died on October 8, 1979, at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Portraits in Color, Pageant Press, 1962.
Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 1950.
Look, November 22, 1949.
New York Herald Tribune, August 19, 1950; September 3, 1950.
New York Times, August 19, 1950; October 11, 1979.
Reader’s Digest, November 1968.
Time, August 28, 1950.
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," www.stanford.edu/group/WLHP/papers/edith.html (February 11, 2003). □