Throughout February, the Democrats will present an ongoing blog series celebrating African American heroes, both past and present. Staffers at the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America have been asked to write about influential African Americans in our country’s history and leaders who continue making contributions today.
An oft-unsung hero of the 20th century, Robert H. Terrell used his gavel to chip away at the status quo, becoming the first African American judge to sit on a federal bench.
Terrell was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1857 with the Civil War on the horizon. Soon after the war ended, his family moved to the District of Columbia, where he attended public school before graduating from Groton Academy in Massachusetts. Terrell’s thirst for knowledge led him to Harvard College, where he worked part-time in the dining hall before graduating magna cum laude in 1884. After Harvard, Terrell returned to Washington, earning his law degree from Howard University and marrying Mary Church, a prominent civil rights and suffrage activist.
From 1885 to 1900, Terrell served his community as an attorney, teacher, school principal, and as chief clerk in the office of the auditor of the U.S. Treasury. In 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt, on the advice of Booker T. Washington, appointed Terrell to serve as a justice of the peace in Washington, D.C., making him the first African American to hold this position. In 1910 President William H. Taft nominated Terrell to be judge of the Municipal Court of the District of Columbia. Despite facing race-based opposition by many in the Senate, he was confirmed to become the first African American to preside in a federal court.
Terrell remained a federal judge until his death on December 20, 1925. In his obituary, Terrell is warmly referred to as someone “to whom human beings are more important than the technicalities of the law.”
Thank you, Robert Terrell, for blazing a path for generations of African American lawyers, judges, and legal scholars.