James Benton Parsons

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James Benton Parsons
FEDERAL JUDGE JAMES B. PARSONS IN THE FEDERAL BUILDING IN CHICAGO. HE WAS THE FIRST BLACK JUDGE APPOINTED TO THE U.S.... - NARA - 556248.tif
Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
In office
August 30, 1981 – June 19, 1993
Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
In office
1975–1981
Preceded byEdwin Albert Robson
Succeeded byFrank James McGarr
Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
In office
August 30, 1961 – August 30, 1981
Appointed byJohn F. Kennedy
Preceded byPhilip Leo Sullivan
Succeeded byPaul Edward Plunkett
Personal details
Born
James Benton Parsons

(1911-08-13)August 13, 1911
Kansas City, Missouri
DiedJune 19, 1993(1993-06-19) (aged 81)
Chicago, Illinois
Resting placeGreenwood Cemetery
Decatur, Illinois
EducationMillikin University (B.A.)
University of Chicago (M.A.)
University of Chicago Law School (J.D.)

James Benton Parsons (August 13, 1911 – June 19, 1993) was a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He was the first African American to serve as a life tenured federal judge under Article III.

Early life, education and career[edit]

Born on August 13, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri,[1] his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was an evangelist and missionary with the Disciples of Christ Church.[citation needed] The family subsequently lived in Lexington, Kentucky, Dayton, Ohio and Bloomington, Indiana, before settling in Decatur, Illinois.[citation needed] Parsons wanted to be an attorney by the time he was in junior high school.[citation needed] He was named "class orator" for Stephen Decatur High School class of 1929, the "first race student" to receive this honor.[citation needed] He was on the basketball team at Stephen Decatur High School coached by Gay Kintner, and also in the school band and orchestra.[citation needed] He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Millikin University in 1934.[1]

Parsons first started working as acting head of music at Lincoln University in Missouri.[citation needed] 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, a historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was director of music. He wanted Parsons to re-score some of Dett's chorales.[2] By 1939, Parsons had become director of instrumental music for Greensboro's Negro public schools, as the state had a segregated public school system.[citation needed] Under his direction, the band at James B. Dudley High School became known throughout the state for its expert musicianship and precision marching.[citation needed]

World War II military service[edit]

During World War II, Parsons enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve in May 1942.[1] Serving as a Musician MUS1, he directed the U.S. Navy B-1 Fleet Band.[citation needed] The band was organized from a core of members of the bands at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T State University.[citation needed] B-1 was composed of the first African Americans to serve in the modern Navy at a rank higher than messman.[citation needed] It was one of more than 100 bands of African Americans organized by the Navy during the war; the other bands all trained at Camp Robert Smalls.[citation needed] B-1 trained at Norfolk and was stationed at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where it was attached to the Navy's pre-flight school on the University of North Carolina campus.[citation needed]

In May 1944 the band was transferred to the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where it was stationed at Manana Barracks.[citation needed] This held the largest posting of African-American servicemen in the world.[citation needed] While there, Parsons was selected for a panel of judges that was convened by the Navy to investigate the 1944 riot in Guam among Marines.[citation needed] This experience furthered his interest in studying law.[citation needed] Throughout his service, Parsons directed B-1, but he mustered out of the Navy in 1945 as a Musician 1st class, never having made the officer's grade. He and his men believed that he had earned that.[3]

Later education and career[edit]

After the war, Parsons used the GI Bill[citation needed] to earn his Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1946, followed by a Juris Doctor from the University of Chicago Law School in 1949.[1] Parsons entered private practice in Chicago, Illinois from 1949 to 1951, also serving as an assistant corporation counsel during that time.[1] He was appointed as an Assistant United States Attorney of the Northern District of Illinois, serving from 1951 to 1960.[1] He was a judge of the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois from 1960 to 1961.[1]

Federal judicial service[edit]

Parsons was nominated by President John F. Kennedy on August 10, 1961, to a seat on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois vacated by Judge Philip Leo Sullivan.[1] He was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 30, 1961, and received his commission the same day,[1] becoming the first African American to serve as a life tenured federal judge under Article III.[citation needed] He served as Chief Judge from 1975 to 1981 and served as a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States from 1975 to 1978.[1] He assumed senior status on August 30, 1981.[1] His service terminated on June 19, 1993, due to his death in Chicago.[1] He was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Decatur.[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l James Benton Parsons at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
  2. ^ 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.OCLC 35320772
  3. ^ Albright, Alex. The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy, Fountain, NC: R.A. Fountain, 2013

Sources[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Philip Leo Sullivan
Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
1961–1981
Succeeded by
Paul Edward Plunkett
Preceded by
Edwin Albert Robson
Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
1975–1981
Succeeded by
Frank James McGarr