After a stellar career as a layer and educator, Judge William H. Hastie was bestowed with a historic first. On this day in 1946, Hastie was named the first Black governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the first to do so since the Reconstruction Era.
William Henry Hastie was born November 17, 1904 in Knoxville, Tennessee, spending most of his childhood there before finishing high school in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Amherst College in 1925, he then entered Harvard University Law School.
From 1930 to 1933, Hastie worked in private practice and then was a part the Department of the Interior from 1933 to 1937 as an assistant solicitor while addressing racial issues for the agency. That year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him the United States District Court judge for the Virgin Islands, making him the first Black federal judge. During World War II, Hastie was a civilian aide to War Secretary Henry Stimson but left the position in protest due to the military’s bigotry and discrimination against Black soldiers.
Those actions along with his legal achievements earned Hastie the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1943. For a time, it appeared that Hastie’s service to government was finished but in 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed him as the territorial governor of the Virgin Islands. Hastie maintained the role until 1949 when he was appointed in a recess role as the first Black appellate judge by President Truman, serving on the bench for 22 years after he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1950.
As the top Black judge of his era, Hastie was once considered by President John F. Kennedy for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court bench in 1962 but there was a thought that despite Hastie’s conservative views, his race would face strong Senate opposition to the highest court in the land. Ironically, Hastie’s former law school student Thurgood Marshall broke the Supreme Court barrier in 1967.
In 1968, Hastie became Chief Judge of the Third Circuit and resigned in 1971. He passed away in 1976 during a game of golf.
The Third Circuit Court library in Philadelphia is named after Hastie, along with a park bearing Hastie’s name in Knoxville.
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