Gwen Jordan


Edith Sampson was one of the leading black women lawyers in Chicago for over fifty years. She was admitted to the bar in 1927 and achieved a number of firsts in her career: the first black woman judge in Illinois, the first African American delegate to the United Nations, and the first African American appointed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Sampson was also a pro-democracy, international spokesperson for the U.S. government during the Cold War, a position that earned her scorn from more radical African Americans, contributed to a misinterpretation of her activism, and resulted in her relative obscurity in the historical record. This paper reexamines the work of Edith Sampson by employing a critical race feminist analysis to her career. This new lens reveals that, rather than a marginal figure, Sampson's work was an important part of a gendered black activism that sought racial justice for women of color in the United States and around the world.

Understanding Sampson's career in this context connects the activism of African American women to the issues of race, racial justice, and international relations during the decades before and after the start of the Cold War. Sampson was part of a vibrant and dynamic African American women's civil rights network that employed a rich diversity of strategies, both domestic and transnational, to secure a gendered racial justice—one that included the concerns and position of black and brown women. Through an examination of Sampson's work as an attorney and a leader in Chicago and her international work, this article hopes to contribute to recent studies that are beginning to alter our understanding of the role African American women played in the domestic and international civil rights movement from the 1920s through the 1950s. This piece argues specifically that Edith Sampson, and her sister black women lawyers and activists, engaged in domestic and international activism to pressure the United States government and its citizens to end race discrimination as they worked to ensure that the growing civil rights movement in the U.S. included the advancement of the position, rights, and protections of African American women.