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Profiling Adolpho A. Birch, The First Black Man To Hold Several Judicial Posts In Nashville, Tennessee

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Adolpho A. Birch was the first African-American to hold several judicial positions in Nashville, Tennessee, and the first to serve as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Birch was born in Washington, D.C., the first child of the same-named Episcopal minister who immigrated to the United States in 1894 from British Honduras (now Belize) in search of an education. Birch’s mother died when he was six years old, leaving his father to raise him.

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Birch attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania after graduating from Washington, D.C.’s famous Dunbar High School, later transferring to Howard University in D.C., where he received both his undergraduate and law degrees concurrently in 1956. While in college, he also joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

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Birch served in the military for two years before moving to Nashville and working in the office of an African American attorney for office space and $12.50 per week. Later, he joined the firm of well-known African American attorney Bob Lillard, who mentored him.

Birch began a series of firsts for African American lawyers in Tennessee in 1966. He was appointed as Nashville’s first black assistant attorney general. Governor Buford Ellington appointed him to a general sessions judgeship in 1969, making him the first African American to hold a state judicial position in Tennessee; he was re-elected twice.

Birch was appointed as a criminal court judge by Governor Ray Blanton in 1978. Judge Birch, known for his stern demeanor toward litigants and lawyers, received the Nashville Bar Association’s endorsement for his candidacy, and he was reelected to this position as well. Governor Ned McWherter appointed him to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1987. In 1993, Judge Birch was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and later elected to a full term.

Birch died of cancer on August 25, 2011 in Nashville. He had been battling cancer since 2004, when he was first diagnosed and took a leave of absence from the Supreme Court to undergo treatment.

 

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