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Parsons, James Benton(1911–1993) - Judge, Chronology, Recognition of Service

university chicago illinois law

Modest, hardworking James Benton Parsons was the first African American appointed for life as an Article III judge. His 1961 appointment marked a pivotal point for African Americans involved in the legal system. Through his dedication and perseverance, Parsons prospered in various roles: he graduated from high school as valedictorian, worked as a teacher, and ultimately served as a judge.

Parsons was born August 13, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, the youngest of four children. His father was an evangelistic minister and his mother a schoolteacher. Parsons moved to Decatur, Illinois as a young child. As a teenager, Parsons dreamed of becoming an attorney; however, it was a dream which would take many years to realize. Parsons worked his way through Millikin University as a composing room helper at the Decatur Herald Review . Parsons earned a B.A. in music in 1934. Parsons could not afford law school, so he joined the faculty of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where he taught music and political science. Parsons served as acting head of Lincoln University’s Music Department from 1938 to 1940. He also continued his education, earning a B.A. in political science from the University of Washington (Saint Louis) in 1940. Parsons then accepted a job with the Greensboro, North Carolina public school system as supervisor of instrumental music for the black schools.

In 1942, Parsons enlisted in the United States Navy. He served as a bandmaster from 1942 to 1945. In addition he completed a tour of duty in the Pacific. Before 1942, African Americans were not able to serve in any area of the navy other than as mess attendants. In 1946, Parsons left the navy using the G.I. Bill to earn an M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago. His only son was born in 1947. Parsons belonged to several fraternities, including Kappa Alpha Psi as an undergraduate and Sigma Pi Phi as a graduate student. He was also a member of the Phi Beta Phi Honor Society and an honorary member of Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity. In 1949, at the age of 38, Parsons became an attorney upon receiving his law degree from the University of Chicago.



Born in Kansas City, Missouri on August 13


Earns B.A. in music from Millikin University


Begins teaching music and political science at Lincoln University in Jefferson, Missouri


Earns B.A. in political science from George Washington University


Serves in U.S. Naval Reserves


Earns M.A. in political science from the University of Chicago


Son Hans-Dieter Parsons born


Earns J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School; begins private practice with Gassaway, Crosson, Turner & Parsons


Serves as assistant corporation counsel in Chicago


Serves as assistant U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois


Marries Amy Margaret Maxwell


Appointed judge for the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois; begins Federal Judicial Service for the U.S. District Court, northern district of Illinois


Becomes chief judge for the U.S. District Court, northern district of Illinois


Assumes senior status for the U.S. District Court, northern district of Illinois


Retires as chief judge emeritus


Dies in Chicago, Illinois on June 19


James B. Parsons ceremonial courtroom in Chicago’s Dirksen Federal Building is dedicated

Recognition of Service

Parsons received many honors for his work as a judge. In 1967, the entire state of Illinois observed James B. Parsons Day. In addition, an elementary school in Decatur, Illinois was named after him that same year. In 1975, he was unanimously elected by the judges of the Seventh Circuit Court to represent them at the Judicial Conference of the United States. He also served for six years on the Judicial Conferences’ Committee on Probation and Sentencing Seminars. In 1981, he received a citation for outstanding service as a chief judge of the district court from the Chicago Bar Association. In 1984, he received “The Outstanding Service Award” from Chicago University. Parsons served for three years as the vice chairman of the Chicago Commission on Police and Community Relations and for four years on the Council of Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association. Parsons was cited by Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) for a quarter century of service as the first black Article III judge. Parsons was honored several times by Ebony magazine; in 1991 he was named one of the 100 Most Influential Blacks in America. Parsons also received academic recognition for his work. He received honorary degrees from Lincoln University, Millikin University, and De Paul University Law School. The honorary degrees included a Doctor of Letters and Doctor of Laws.

When Parsons retired in 1992, several judges, former law clerks, and attorneys decided to have a dinner in his honor. Parsons vetoed the idea, stating instead that it should be a celebration of all African American Title III judges. It became a weekend-long event called “Just the Beginning,” which evolved into a foundation whose goals include education of the public about the role of African Americans in the judicial system as well as scholarships to promising law students. Parsons donated $35,000 to the scholarship fund which bears his name. Even after Parsons retired from trial work, he did not completely give up his judicial duties; he continued to swear in new United States citizens and other similar duties.

Parsons not only provided leadership in a professional capacity but was an active member of the community. Parsons was a member for twenty-eight years of the Chicago-area Council for the Boy Scouts of America as well as nine years on the Boy Scouts’ National Advisory Council. Parsons served for almost twenty years on the Executive Board of the Citizenship Council of Metropolitan Chicago. He served as a member of the advisory board of the Illinois Masonic Hospital for fourteen years. Parsons served for six years as a member of the Illinois Commission on Education for Law and Justice of the State Board of Education. Parsons served eight years on the board of directors of Chicago’s Harvard-St. George School and one term on the President’s Council of St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. Parsons continued to serve on various committees at the University of Illinois, University of Chicago Law School, and Loyola University Law School. During the early 1960s Parsons helped found the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race which worked with interfaith groups to form housing information centers, to hold employment training programs, and to help people find work.

Parsons died after a prolonged illness on June 19, 1993. He was 81 years old. He was survived by his son, Hans-Dieter Parsons, a grandson, and one sibling, his sister Amy Margaret Maxwell. The legacy left by Parsons was such that three years after his death the ceremonial court room in Chicago’s Dirksen Courthouse was named in his memory.

Parsons, Richard(1948–) - Corporate executive, Excels in Academics, Career Develops, Becomes CEO of Dime Savings Bank, Chronology [next] [back] Parsons, James A., Jr.(1900–1989) - Inventor, scientist, educator, Begins Teaching Career, Chronology

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