August 9th, 1961

James B. Parsons Nominated First Black Federal Judge in Continental United States

On August 9, 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated James Benton Parsons as United States District Court Judge for Northern Illinois. At the time, Judge Parsons, a native of Missouri and the great-grandson of enslaved people, 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 African American federal judge in the continental United States and the first African American federal judge with life tenure. Prior to his appointment, African Americans 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 African American Chief Judge of a District Court; one month later, he was elected the first African American 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, Illinois, the following year, at 81.

(Judge James Parsons in 1961. The Decaturian.)