Wednesday, October 24, 2018

James Benton Parsons, first Black Federal Judge; served the Northern Illinois court beginning in 1961.

James Benton Parsons was born August 13, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, the youngest of four children. His father was an evangelistic minister and his mother a schoolteacher. Parsons moved to Decatur, Illinois as a young child. As a teenager, Parsons dreamed of becoming an attorney; however, it was a dream which would take many years to realize. 

Parsons worked his way through Millikin University as a composing room helper at the Decatur Herald Review . Parsons earned a B.A. in music in 1934. Parsons could not afford law school, so he joined the faculty of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where he taught music and political science. Parsons served as acting head of Lincoln University’s Music Department from 1938 to 1940. He also continued his education, earning a B.A. in political science from Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri) in 1940. Parsons then accepted a job with the Greensboro, North Carolina public school system as supervisor of instrumental music for the black schools.
In 1942, Parsons enlisted in the United States Navy. He served as a bandmaster from 1942 to 1945. In addition he completed a tour of duty in the Pacific. Before 1942, Blacks were not able to serve in any area of the navy other than as mess attendants. In 1946, Parsons left the navy using the G.I. Bill to earn an M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago. His only son was born in 1947. 

Parsons belonged to several fraternities, including Kappa Alpha Psi as an undergraduate and Sigma Pi Phi as a graduate student. He was also a member of the Phi Beta Phi Honor Society and an honorary member of Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity. In 1949, at the age of 38, Parsons became an attorney upon receiving his law degree from the University of Chicago.

On August 9, 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated James Benton Parsons as United States District Court Judge for Northern Illinois.
Judge James Benton Parsons
At the time, Judge Parsons, a native of Missouri and the great-grandson of enslaved family, was serving as a judge on the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois. The Senate confirmed Judge Parson’s nomination on August 30, 1961, making him the first Black federal judge in the continental United States and the first African American federal judge with life tenure. Prior to his appointment, Blacks had been appointed solely to fixed judicial terms on the United States District Court for the Virgin Islands.

Judge Parsons went on to accomplish other significant firsts within his position as a district court judge. On April 17, 1975, he became the first Black Chief Judge of a District Court; one month later, he was elected the first Black representative to the United States Judicial Conference. In 1992, after 30 years of service, Judge Parsons retired from active trial duty. 

He died in Chicago, in 1993 at 81 years old. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Decatur, Illinois. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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