Edith Spurlock Sampson never hesitated to speak up about something that was on her mind. That was just one of the reasons she was the first African-American appointed to serve in the United Nations.
She was born just after the turn of the last century and grew up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania during difficult financial times, especially in a family of eight children. Sampson left school at the age of fourteen to work in a fish market to help support the family.
She eventually graduated from high school and, with the help of a Sunday school teacher, she went to work with Associated Charities, a social work organization. Through arrangements with the organization, Sampson was able to attend the New York School of Social Work.
George W. Kirchway of Columbia University School of Law noticed Sampson’s excellent performance in his criminology class and encouraged Sampson to attend law school. Sampson opted to complete her social work degree at that time.
Before attending law school, Sampson married Rufus Sampson and they moved to Chicago. There she worked at the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society and the YWCA, working with neglected children.
When her old professor Kirchway made his way to Chicago to give a speech, he made it a point to again encourage the young Sampson to go to law school.
This time, she heeded his advice, taking night classes at the John Marshall Law School while continuing to work full time as a social worker. Sampson ranked highest in her class of 95 students and received a dean’s commendation upon graduation in 1925.
However, an overconfident Sampson failed the bar exam the first time. Instead of taking the exam again, she enrolled in law school at Loyola University. In 1927, she became the first woman to receive a master of law degree from Loyola. That year, she passed the bar exam and was admitted to the Illinois bar.
That same year Sampson opened her own law firm in Chicago while at the same time working as a referee for the Juvenile Court of Cook County. Her law firm offered advice to many African-Americans who could not afford to hire attorneys.
Sampson became one of the first African-American women to practice before the United States Supreme Court in 1934. She was also the first African-American woman, along with Georgia Jones Ellis, to join the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Women Lawyers.
Her marriage to Rufus Sampson ended in divorce, even though she kept his name. She married Joseph Clayton and they worked together for more than ten years.
While Sampson was serving as chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women in the forties, she was selected to be part of a world lecture tour. “America’s Town Meeting of the Air” would take representatives of various American groups to speak on current problems in radio broadcasts.
At one point during the tour, Sampson got the better of a heckler. “You ask, do we get fair treatment?” Sampson said. “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.”
In Pakistan, $5,000 was collected by the Pakistani prime minister’s wife to help offset costs for Sampson’s tour. Sampson accepted the gift, then turned around and donated it to the League of Pakistani Women for charitable work.
After the tour, Sampson was named president of the World Town Hall Seminar. But her career as a diplomat and speaker was just beginning.
Her work with the tour came to the attention of President Harry S. Truman. He appointed Sampson as an alternate delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations, the first African-American woman to serve as an American representative to the U.N. She worked for land reform, reparation of prisoners and repatriation of Greek children.
Sampson was reappointed alternate delegate in 1952 and went on to be named member-at-large of the United States Commission for United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
She was also appointed to serve on the United States Citizens Commission on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a member of the United States Advisory Committee on Private Enterprise in Foreign Aid.
She traveled the world speaking about the positive aspects of Democracy while acknowledging racial discrimination in the United States. She stated in an interview 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.”
After traveling the world and speaking her mind, Sampson was the first African-American woman judge in the United States, elected associate to the Municipal Court of Chicago. A few years later, Sampson was elected to a seat on the Circuit Court of Cook County.
Sampson received several honorary degrees. John Marshall Law School awarded her a doctor of law degree.
Sampson retired from the bench in 1978 and died October 8, 1979.