William H. Hastie, Attorney and Judge:
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1904, William showed precocious intelligence and an early determination to succeed. His parents, a government clerk and a teacher were in a better position than most to help their son excel, and he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he graduated at the top of his class. After an exceptional academic career, he passed the bar exam and became a practicing lawyer and a teacher at Howard. In 1933, he returned to Harvard to obtain his doctorate in judicial studies.
He was one of the first African Americans appointed by the Roosevelt administration, serving as a lawyer with the Department of the Interior. As part of his work there, he drafted a constitution for the Virgin Islands, which had become an American territory after World War I. Roosevelt appointed Hastie to the federal court in the Virgin Islands, effectively making him the first federal African-American judge in history. Hastie left soon after for a job in the War Department, where he hoped to promote the integration of training units.
Unfortunately, his attempts to do so were frustrated, and the idea would not take hold until after he had moved on. Roosevelt then appointed Hastie to be that first governor, making him the very first black governor of a U.S. state or territory to serve a full term. He would return to the mainland in 1949 to accept President Harry Truman’s nomination of him to the federal court of appeals. Although there was resistance to his appointment in the Senate, which took six months to confirm him, Hastie became a federal judge in 1950.
He would hold the position until his retirement in 1971. As the highest-ranking black federal judge, Hastie was able to speak openly about racism and segregation and support decisions that combated them. After retirement, Hastie became an activist for black causes and a lawyer for public interest groups until his death in 1976.
By Aprille’ Morris & Emily Burke
Edited By Keshav Kant