The topic of historical black judges cannot be discussed without the mention of the Honorable Judge Harold A. Stevens and the Honorable Fritz Winfred Alexander.
The Honorable Judge Harold A. Stevens (pictured right) was born on October 19, 1907. He lost his father at the age of three and was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents who later moved to Columbia, South Carolina. Stevens attended Claflin College High School in South Carolina and, in 1930, earned a B.A. from Benedict College, located in Columbia, South Carolina. Unable to attend law school in the segregated South, Stevens moved to Boston, where he attended Boston College School of Law and was Vice President of his class. In 1936, Stevens became the first African American to graduate from the law school, earning an LL.B. degree in labor law. Judge Stevens was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1936, the New York State Bar in 1938, and the South Carolina Bar in 1940. He received admission to practice in the Federal Courts and the United States Supreme Court.
Around 1938, Stevens moved to New York where he started his legal career as a clerk in the law offices of Harlem Assemblyman William T. Andrews. Andrews offered Stevens a junior partnership where Stevens developed into a labor law expert. Amongst his many achievements, prior to starting his judicial career, Judge Stevens was a World War II veteran and served as a New York State Assemblyman (New York County, 13th District) from 1947 to 1950.
Judge Stevens’ judicial career was jumpstarted with a string of firsts. In 1950, he was elected to the New York Court of General Sessions as the first African American to sit on that bench. In 1955, Judge Stevens was elected to a 14-year term, becoming the first African American New York State Supreme Court Justice. He was then appointed to the Appellate Division, First Department in 1958, becoming the first African American Associate Justice of the Appellate Division. In 1969, Governor Nelson Rockefeller designated Justice Stevens as the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department, another first for an African American judge. In 1974, Governor Malcolm Wilson appointed Judge Stevens as the first African American to the New York Court of Appeals to fill a vacancy. At that time, Justice Stevens held the highest rank of any African American in a state judicial system in the United States. He was also the first African American to hold a seat on the New York Court of Appeals. When Stevens sought a full term on that court, he was defeated and returned to his position as Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. After a long and successful judicial career, he retired from the bench in 1977. Judge Stevens passed away in Harlem, New York on November 9, 1990 at the age of 83.
The Honorable Fritz Winfred Alexander (pictured right) was born on April 24, 1926 in Apopka, Florida. Born Carl Bernard Zanders, Jr., Judge Alexander, was raised by his mother’s family who bestowed upon him his unique name. He joined the United States Naval Reserve during World War II and the Korean Conflict. He went on to graduate from Dartmouth College in 1947 and thereafter received his law degree from New York University School of Law in 1951. After law school, Judge Alexander became a founding partner of Dyett, Alexander & Dinkins. His law partner David Norman Dinkins would go on to become the first, and only, African American Mayor of New York City in 1990.
In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay appointed Judge Alexander as a Civil Court Judge on an interim basis. Later that year, he was elected to a full term. In 1977, Judge Alexander was elected to the New York State Supreme Court. In 1982, he was appointed an Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department by Governor Hugh Carey. In 1985, Governor Mario Cuomo appointed Justice Alexander to the New York Court of Appeals, resulting in him becoming the very first African American to serve on that Court in anything other than an interim capacity. He served on the Court of Appeals for seven years. In 1992, Judge Alexander stunned many of his colleagues, supporters, and friends when he left the Court of Appeals to join the mayoral administration of his friend, former classmate, and law partner David Dinkins. Judge Alexander accepted the, at times, thankless position of Deputy Mayor, overseeing the city’s police, fire, correction, and probation departments.
After his stint as Deputy Mayor of New York City, Judge Alexander became Of Counsel to a law firm, later retiring. Judge Alexander was a proud father of three children and passed away on April 22, 2000, at the age 73.
Although each started with humble beginnings, these brilliant jurists were unrelenting and able to reach their goals. They provide examples of how a life committed to social and racial justice through the law can impact the nation.
We will not let them down!