Sampson, Edith S. (1901–1979)

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Sampson, Edith S. (1901–1979)

African-American lawyer and judge. Name variations: Edith Spurlock; Edith Clayton. Born Edith Spurlock in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 1901; died in October 1979; one of eight children of Louis Spurlock (manager of a cleaning and dying establishment) and Elizabeth (McGruder) Spurlock (a milliner and maker of false hair switches); graduated from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh; attended New York School of Social Work; John Marshall Law School, LL.B., 1925; Loyola University, LL.M., 1927; married Rufus Sampson (a field agent, divorced); married Joseph E. Clayton (an attorney), in 1934 (died 1957); no children.

Was the first woman to receive an LL.M. from Loyola University; was one of the first black women admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court (1934); was the first African-American appointed delegate to the United Nations (1950); was the first black woman elected judge in the United States (1962).

Edith S. Sampson accomplished many firsts in a career path far removed from her poverty-stricken origins. Born on October 13, 1901, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she grew up in a large family that worked hard to survive. Her father Louis Spurlock managed a shop that cleaned and dyed fabrics, and her mother Elizabeth McGruder Spurlock made buckram hat frames and false hair switches. Her parents were frugal by necessity, handing down clothing from child to child and avoiding waste. The children worked as soon as they were able, and Sampson got her first job when she was 14, scaling and boning fish in a fish market. Although the family was poor, their hard work and frugality paid off when they were able to buy a home.

When Sampson graduated from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, her Sunday school teacher helped her get a position with Associated Charities, and that organization in turn arranged for her to attend the New York School of Social Work. While there, Sampson took a required course in criminology taught by George W. Kirchwey of the Columbia University School of Law, and received the highest grade in the class. "You are in the wrong field," Kirchwey told her. "You have the earmarks of a lawyer."

Sampson moved to Chicago and worked as a social worker for the Illinois Children's Home and Aid Society, finding placements for orphaned and neglected children in adoptive and foster homes. She again encountered Kirchwey, who was in town to give a speech, and he further encouraged her to enter law school. With his support, she enrolled in the evening program at Chicago's John Marshall Law School in 1922 and became the highest-ranking student of the 95 enrolled in the course on jurisprudence, earning a special commendation from Dean Edward T. Lee.

After receiving her bachelor of laws degree in 1925, Sampson sat for the Illinois bar exam and, despite her shining record, failed it. She attributed her setback to overconfidence and claimed it was the best thing that could have happened to her. Not at all discouraged, she continued her studies at the graduate law school of Loyola University, and in 1927 became the first woman granted an LL.M. from that institution. She passed the bar and was admitted to the practice of law in Illinois the same year.

While in graduate school, Sampson had been appointed probation officer for the Juvenile Court of Cook County, Illinois, thus beginning an 18-year association with that court which she said taught her the practical side of law. She later became a referee for the same court. Her private law practice, which she maintained until 1942, specialized in criminal law and domestic relations. Located on Chicago's South State Street in the middle of black neighborhoods, it became the place where thousands of poor people who otherwise would have been unable to afford representation could come for legal advice. In 1934, Sampson was among the first black women admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1947 she was appointed assistant state's attorney of Cook County. She was "a kind of freewheeler," in court, said a friend, "with a completely unorthodox approach to the law." Said Sampson, "I talk from my heart and let the law take care of itself."

Sampson's career took a new turn in 1949 when, as chair of the executive committee of the National Council of Negro Women, she was invited to be one of 26 American civic, cultural, labor, and welfare leaders to participate in an international lecture tour. Using her own money, she traveled throughout the world, participating in public debates about current political questions and meeting with foreign dignitaries. Sampson was intent on exposing Soviet anti-American propaganda which exploited the condition of blacks in America. Before one audience, she declared that even though American democracy was not yet functioning perfectly, still she "would rather be a Negro in America than a citizen in any other land." Her skill and personality were much admired. Once, while speaking to the League of Pakistani Women, she referred to her efforts to raise $5,000 to cover her travel expenses, and the audience surprised her by collecting the sum and presenting it to her. She accepted the gift and immediately turned it over to the Pakistani league for their social work. When the lecture circuit was made permanent and named the World Town Hall Seminar, Sampson was elected president by the membership. The tour changed her focus. "After visiting and talking with the peoples of other countries," she said, "I knew that I could never make my law practice the primary business of my life; I would have to devote myself to the course of world brotherhood and world peace."

To Sampson's delight, President Harry Truman helped further her goal by appointing her an alternate member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations in August 1950, substituting for Eleanor Roosevelt . She was the first African-American appointed as an official U.S. representative. At the UN, Sampson served on the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee, which covered many areas including land reform, reparation of prisoners, repatriation of Greek children, and radio jamming. Her first appearance was on September 28, 1950, in an appeal to the UN to continue advisory work in social welfare. She was reappointed as alternate delegate again in 1952, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower later made her member-at-large of the U.S. Commission of UNESCO.

Many of Sampson's speeches concerned the status of African-Americans in America. While she admitted to injustices and imperfections in the social structure, she remained adamant in her defense of the United States as a country where the struggle for justice could take place in an atmosphere of hope. She denounced once more the images used by the Soviets in particular to criticize the social plight of American blacks, and hotly defended the U.S. against ideological attack. Her comments met with some criticism from American journalists who thought she overstated the case and made the status of blacks appear more positive than it was, but there were many who approved her stand. In 1961 and 1962, she was appointed to serve on the U.S.

Citizens Commission on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in 1964 and 1965, she was a member of the Advisory Committee on Private Enterprise in Foreign Aid.

In 1962, Sampson was elected associate judge of the Municipal Court of Chicago, the first black woman in America to hold a judgeship. Her cases involved domestic relations, and by the late 1960s, as a judge of a branch of the Circuit Court of Cook County, landlord-tenant issues. She was adamantly opposed to evicting tenants, to the dismay of landlords. She was a friend and supporter of Mayor Richard Daley who backed her as a candidate for the court when William Dawson, a leader in Chicago's black community, opposed her. She also visited Harold Washington, at the time a prosecuting attorney with the mayor's office, to encourage him to work agreeably with the prosecutor's staff.

Toward the end of her life, Sampson received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the John Marshall Law School. Although she had no children, she was much admired by her nieces and nephews, two of whom followed her into the legal profession and became judges. Her strong personality impressed everyone who met her. Said one admirer, "She works like a dynamo, talks like a pneumatic drill, and her warmth penetrates any room she enters." Sampson retired from the bench in 1978 and died the following year at the age of 78.


Current Biography 1950. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1950.

The New York Times (obituary). October 11, 1979.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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Sampson, Edith S. (1901–1979)

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