Edith Spurlock was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 13, 1901. She grew up in a working class family, one of seven children, and attended Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. Upon graduation, she married Rufus Sampson, a field agent for Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
After working briefly for Associated Charities in Pittsburgh, Sampson decided to enroll in the New York University School of Social Work. One of her instructors, George W. Kirchwey, a Columbia University Law School professor, suggested she pursue a career in law after she did exceptionally well in his criminology class. Sampson and her husband moved to Chicago to care for two children left by her deceased sister. She attended evening classes at the John Marshall Law School and earned a law degree. She then enrolled in Chicago’s Loyola University Law School. In 1927, she became the first woman to receive a Master of Law degree from Loyola University.
Sampson went to work for Cook County in 1927. She worked as a probation officer and then assistant referee in juvenile court, a post she held for eighteen years. In 1934, Sampson established her own practice and became one of the first women to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. By 1947, she was appointed assistant state’s attorney (prosecutor) for Cook County.
Sampson was also affiliated with the Chicago Professional Women’s Club, the Afro-World Fellowship, and the Women’s Progressive Committee, serving for a time as president of each organization. She worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Chicago Urban League.
In 1950, Edith Spurlock Sampson became the first African American named to the permanent United States delegation to the United Nations (UN). While working at the UN, Sampson went on several international lecture tours and held membership on the U.S. delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In 1962, at the age of 61, Sampson was elected a judge on the Chicago Municipal Court. With that election she became the first black woman in the United States elevated to the bench by popular vote. Edith Spurlock Sampson retired from the bench in 1978 and died one year later in Chicago.