Black History Month


Black History Month: A Conversation with The Dreamer, Judge John McClarty

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Throughout February 2024, we will be recognizing African American law and judicial pioneers from Tennessee. New material will be added weekly. Please feel free to repost or use these materials:






Figures in History



Lutie Lytle

Lutie Lytle becomes the first woman and first black female to graduate from law school and be admitted to the bar in Tennessee. She attended Central Tennessee College. Her efforts to join the bar are rebuffed by several courts, but she is admitted to the bar by a sympathetic judge in Memphis, after the administration of an oral bar exam. The news was reported in papers around the country and as far away as England. Shortly after, she moves from Tennessee.


Judge Benjamin Hooks

Judge Benjamin Hooks becomes the first African American judge in state history when he is appointed to the Shelby County Criminal Court by Governor Frank Clement. He wins election to the seat in 1966 and steps down from the bench in 1968. Later in his career, he would serve for five years as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and as executive director of the NAACP.  Learn how the Black bar associations helped propel the careers of many early minority attorneys and judges. 


Judge Adolpho A. Birch Jr.

Judge Adolpho A. Birch Jr.’s long and distinguished judicial career begins when he is appointed to the Davidson County General Sessions Court, becoming the first African American General Sessions judge in the state. Judge Birch would stay on the General Sessions bench until 1978, when he became the first African American criminal court judge in state history after he was appointed to the 20th Judicial District Criminal Court.


Justice George Brown

Justice George Brown becomes the first African American justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court after his appointment by Governor Lamar Alexander. He loses an election to the seat later that year. Justice Brown is subsequently elected to the 30th Judicial Circuit Court bench in 1983, and serves as a judge there until his retirement from the bench in 2005.



Judge Bernice Donald

Judge Bernice Donald becomes the first African American woman judge in Tennessee history when she is elected to the Shelby County General Sessions Court bench. She later becomes the first African American U.S. bankruptcy judge in 1988. In 1995, President Bill Clinton appoints her to a position on the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. In 2011, President Barack Obama appoints her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.


Judge Odell Horton

The federal courthouse in the Western District of Tennessee is named for Judge Odell Horton. Judge Horton began his judicial career as a Shelby County Criminal Court judge. He would later serve as U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge. In 1980, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. He was chief judge of that court from 1987 to 1994.


Judge Richard Dinkins

Judge Richard Dinkins becomes the first African American member of the Court of Appeals, after his appointment by Governor Phil Bredesen.


Judge Camille McMullen

Judge Camille McMullen becomes the first African American female to sit on an appellate court when she joins the Court of Criminal Appeals.

News Articles

Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Elects Judge McMullen Presiding Judge

HBCUs Powerful Contributors to Lives, Careers of Tennessee Judges

Tennessee’s Historically African American Bar Associations Boast Rich History, Broad Influence

New Generations, New Chapters Continue Historically African American Bar Association Legacy Into the 21st Century

Mural In Lawrence County Courthouse Depicts Early Civil Rights Victory