James Lopez Watson was the first African American to serve as the head of a federal court in the Deep South. He was born in Harlem, New York City, New York, on May 21, 1922, to Violet and James S. Watson, a New York judge. James Lopez Watson’s first job was with his father during the senior Watson’s tenure as municipal judge.
During World War II, Watson served in Italy with the all-black 371st Infantry Regiment, and he was wounded in battle. He returned to the United States with a Purple Heart, a military honor given to those wounded or killed in the line of duty. After the war, he attended New York University, from which he graduated from in 1947. Watson graduated from the Brooklyn Law School in 1951, and then entered private law practice in New York City.
Watson won election to the New York State Senate in 1954 and held office until 1963, at which point he was elected to the New York City Civil Court. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to fill a federal judge seat on the United States Customs Court; he was subsequently confirmed by the Senate. This position required Judge Watson to work in various federal district courts, including some in the South. When he heard cases in Atlanta (Georgia), Tampa (Florida), Houston, El Paso, San Antonio, and Dallas (Texas) during his first year on the federal bench, he became the first African American federal judge to receive assignments in the South.
While on the Customs Court, Watson helped modernize it, reworked some rules, and had a role in introducing computers. Congress reorganized the court in 1980 into the United States Court on International Trade; Watson remained on the newly renamed court. He assumed senior status in 1991 and continued serving on the court until his death.
In 1955 Watson married D’Jaris Hinton Jenkins Watson, with whom he had three children. James Lopez Watson passed away on September 1, 2001, in New York City. He was survived by his children and his three grandchildren.