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Alumni Spotlight

James Campbell Matthews, Albany Law’s—and New York’s—First Black Law Graduate and Judge

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In honor of Black History Month, we would like to recognize James Campbell Matthews, Albany Law School’s first alumnus who can be identified with certainty as African American.

He was also New York state’s first black judge. Matthews—earning praise for his candidacy by the New York Times—won the election for Judge of Albany's Recorder’s Court in 1895. In that office, he held one of the highest judicial positions of any African American up to that time.

Born in 1844 in New Haven, Conn., he moved with his family to Albany when he was young, attended Public School 4, and graduated from Albany Academy in 1864. He worked as a clerk at Albany's Congress Hotel, and later worked as a bookkeeper.

Matthews clerked at a local attorney’s office, then entered law school in 1868, graduating in 1870 at the age of 24. Only two years later Matthews argued against the City of Albany’s School Board and won, forcing the city to desegregate its public schools.

Through his career, as the state’s most prominent African American, he lobbied for a bill that would protect the rights of black teachers, which the governor, Grover Cleveland, signed into law. Two years later, Cleveland, who by then was the U.S. president, nominated Matthews to succeed Frederick Douglass as Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C., but his nomination was blocked by Republican senators, who were reacting to news that Matthews actively sought to influence Albany Republicans to switch parties. Matthews went on to practice law in Albany for 44 years.