Black History Month: Honoring Judicial Trailblazers in Illinois

black history monthBlack History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans and to recognize the critical role of black people in U.S. history.

In 1926, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) sponsored the first national Negro History Week. The group chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. Negro History Week gained prominence in the following decades, receiving annual proclamations from mayors of cities across the U.S.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. He urged the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

In honor of Black History Month, the Commission on Professionalism is highlighting the careers of the first black judges in Illinois. These leaders blazed a trail for black judges across Illinois and beyond, and continue to inspire a culture of diversity and inclusion in the judiciary.

Judge Edith Spurlock Sampson

Born in Pittsburgh in 1898, the Hon. Edith Spurlock Sampson was the first black woman elected to a municipal court in the U.S.

Sampson was one of seven children. To support their large family, her father earned $75 a month as a shipping clerk and her mother crafted hat frames and twisting switches. After graduating from Peabody High School, Sampson studied at the New York School of Social Work where she excelled in criminology. On the recommendation of one of her professors, Sampson – who had moved to Chicago with her husband – attended the John Marshall Law School and Loyola University School of Law, where she became the first woman to receive a Master of Law degree.

In 1947, Sampson was appointed to serve as an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County. Three years later, Sampson became the first black woman to be named a delegate to the United Nations, where she served from 1950-1953. In 1962, Sampson was elected as a judge on the Chicago Municipal Court. She was the first black woman to be elected judge in Illinois. She retired in 1978.

During her career, Sampson was involved in multiple organizations including the Women’s Progressive Committee, the Chicago Professional Women’s Club, the Afro-World Fellowship, the South Side Boy’s Club, the South Side Community Center, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Chicago Urban League, and the National Council of Negro Women.

Judge Albert B. George

Born in 1873 in Washington D.C., the Hon. Albert B. George was the first black man elected as a municipal court judge in Illinois.

George graduated from public school in D.C., before moving to Chicago to attend Northwestern University Law School. After graduating from Northwestern in 1897, George practiced law until being courted by the Republican party to run for Chicago’s Municipal Court in 1924. The Chicago Tribune wrote that “the Republican party sought a man who would arouse no antagonism and who had a record that could not be touched. George accepted their offer.”

George won the judgeship by 78,000 votes at a time when the black population’s vote in Chicago didn’t exceed 60,000.  The newspaper The World wrote that George’s election proved that the majority of white voters elected candidates based on “fitness and character – not the color of his skin.”

Outside of his law practice, George was involved with the Provident Hospital, the Masons, the Urban League, and served as superintendent of the Grace Presbyterian Church Sunday School.

Justice Charles E. Freeman

Descended from slaves freed by Quakers before the Civil War, the Hon. Charles E. Freeman was the first black man to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court and the Court’s first black chief justice.

Freeman was born in 1933 in Richmond, Va., and earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1952. He went on to receive his J.D. from John Marshall Law School in 1962.

Freeman served as an Illinois assistant attorney general, Cook County assistant state’s attorney, and assistant attorney for the Illinois Board of Elections before being elected to the Cook County Circuit Court in 1976. He served on the circuit court for 10 years and was elected to the First District Appellate Court in 1986.

In 1990, Freeman was elected to fill the Illinois Supreme Court vacancy of Seymour Simon, defeating Robert Chapman Buckley. In 1997, the supreme court justices chose Freeman to serve as chief justice. In doing so, he became the first African American to lead a branch of the Illinois government.

Freeman retired in 2018 after 27 years and 6 months on the bench. He is the fifth-longest serving justice in Illinois Supreme Court history.

To learn more, visit the Cook County Bar Association, the Illinois Judicial Council, and the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago.

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