James Benton Parsons

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James Benton Parsons (August 13, 1911 – June 19, 1993) was the first African-American to serve as a United States federal judge.

Parsons was born in Kansas City, Missouri and first lived in St. Louis, where his father was an evangelist and missionary with the Disciples of Christ Church. The family subsequently lived in Lexington, KY; Dayton, OH; and Bloomington, IN; before settling in Decatur, IL. He wanted to be a lawyer by the time he was in junior high school. He was named "class orator" for Decatur High School class of 1929, the "first race student" to receive this honor. He was on the basketball team at Decatur High coached by Gay Kintner and also in the school band and orchestra. He earned a B.A. from Millikin University in 1934. While working as acting head of music at Lincoln University, he met Nathaniel Dett, a former teacher at Lincoln who had returned for a guest performance. Dett subsequently offered Parsons a job at Bennett College, Greensboro, NC, where he was director of music, to re-score some of Dett's chorales.[1] By 1939, Parsons had become director of instrumental music for Greensboro's Negro schools. Under his direction, the band at Dudley High School became known throughout the state for its precision marching and expert musicianship. He enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve in May 1942, to direct U.S. Navy B-1, which was organized from a core of members of the bands at Dudley High School and North Carolina A and T University. B-1 was composed of the first African Americans to serve in the modern Navy at rank higher than messman's. It was one of over 100 bands of African Americans employed by the Navy during the war; the other bands all trained at Camp Robert Smalls. B-1 trained at Norfolk and was stationed at Chapel Hill, N.C., where it was attached to the Navy's pre-flight school on the University of North Carolina campus. In May 1944 the band was transferred to Pearl Harbor, where it was stationed at Manana Barracks, the largest posting of African American servicemen in the world. While there, Parsons was included on a panel of judges that was convened by the Navy to investigate the Guam riots, an experience that furthered his interest in studying law. Throughout his service, he was B-1's director, yet he mustered out of the Navy in 1945 as a Musician 1st class, never having made the officer's grade that he and his men all believed should rightfully have been his.[2] After the war, he earned his M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1946, followed by a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1949. He was in private practice in Chicago, Illinois from 1949 to 1951, also serving as an assistant corporation counsel during that time. He was an assistant United States Attorney of the Northern District of Illinois from 1951 to 1960. He was a judge on the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois from 1960 to 1961.

On August 9, 1961, Parsons was nominated by President John F. Kennedy to a seat on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois vacated by Judge Philip L. Sullivan. Parsons was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 30, 1961, and received his commission the same day. He was the first black person given the prestigious appointment to the Federal bench, which under Article III is a life term.

In 1974, author Joseph Goulden wrote a book about Federal judges called The Benchwarmers that was very critical of Parsons. Goulden claimed that a poll of Chicago lawyers revealed that only 15% had a favorable opinion of the judge. Goulden also claimed that Parsons had sat on the bench while drunk and that an overwhelming number of lawyers complained that he was unable to understand the issues in complex cases.

Nevertheless, Parsons served as chief judge from 1975 to 1981, assuming senior status on August 30, 1981. Parsons served in that capacity until his death, in 1993, in Chicago.



  1. ^ Parsons, James B. "The Unfinished Oral History of District Judge James Benton Parsons." Collins T. Fitzpatrick, ed. Typescript. Chicago: U of Chicago, DeAngelo Law Library Law School. May 1996.
  2. ^ Albright, Alex The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern NavyFountain, NC: R.A. Fountain, 2013