Edith S. Sampson
First In Many Fields
Edith S. Sampson’s career was the first woman to earn a law degree from Loyola University of Chicago, the first black person appointed a United States delegate to the United Nations, and the first black woman elected as a judge in Illinois.
Edith Spurlock was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 1901, one of the eight children of Louis and Elizabeth (McGruder) Spurlock. Her father managed a cleaning and dying establishment, and her mother earned money by making buckram hat frames and switches of false hair.
After graduating from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, she obtained a job with Associated Charities, which later helped her to gain admission to the New York School of Social Work. Completing her studies there, she moved to Chicago, to become a social worker at the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society, while studying at John Marshall Law School during the evenings. Later, she attended Loyola University of Chicago, and in 1927 she became the first woman to earn an L.L.M from that prestigious institution. She was admitted to the Illinois Bar the same year.
For much of the next twenty years Edith successfully maintained dual careers in law and social work. While she was in law school, she performed social work for the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society. In 1925 she became a probation officer and later served for eighteen years as a referee for the Juvenile Court of Cook County.
Meanwhile, she also practiced law, specializing in criminal law and domestic relations. In 1934 she became one of the earliest black women admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. Her office supplied legal help to thousands of poor black people who otherwise would have had no legal advice. In 1947 she was appointed assistant state’s attorney of Cook County.
In 1949, the national Council of Negro Women, whose executive committee Sampson chaired, selected her as its representative on a world tour undertaken by members of various types of American interest groups. The tour was part of the Cold War propaganda contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.
When the trip was over the delegates organized the World Town Hall Seminar and elected Sampson its president. “My decision to make the Town Hall trip proved to be the turning point of my life,” she later wrote. “After visiting and talking with the peoples of other countries, I knew that I could never make my law practice the primary business of my life; I would have to devote myself to… world brotherhood and world peace.”
Sampson therefore eagerly accepted President Truman’s appointment as an alternate United States delegate (substituting for Eleanor Roosevelt) to the United Nations General Assembly in 1950. She was the first African-American, male or female, to be appointed a regular member of the United States delegation at the United Nations. Serving on the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee, she worked in many fields including land reform, prisoner release and human rights. During her second term as a delegate she served as member-at-large of the United States Commission for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). During her years with the United Nations she also traveled abroad and spoke about the status of blacks in America.
In 1961 and 1962 she served on the United States Citizens Commission on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In 1962 Sampson was elected associate justice of the Municipal Court of Chicago, becoming the first African American woman elected to a judgeship in Illinois. Later she became judge of a branch of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Simpson retired from the bench in 1978 and died in Chicago the following year, on October 8, 1979.
As an African-American who attained many firsts for her people, Edith S. Sampson helped to weave black people more firmly into the fabric of American life. “When we Negroes achieve first class citizenship in America,” she said,”we will not drape our mantles over our shoulders and return anywhere; we are already there.”