Odell Horton, 77; First Modern Black Federal Judge in Tennessee

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Odell Horton, 77, the first black federal judge and assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee since Reconstruction, died of respiratory failure Wednesday at a Memphis retirement home, said Evie Horton, his wife of 52 years.

A native of Bolivar, Tenn., Horton became a U.S. district judge in western Tennessee after being nominated by President Carter and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1980.

Horton was the oldest of five children. His first job was delivering laundry at age 6 for his mother. After serving in the Marines, he earned a bachelor’s from Morehouse College in 1951 and a law degree from Howard University in 1956. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1962 to 1967.


When he retired from the bench in 1997, Horton called his public life an “unbelievable journey” that his friends couldn’t foresee in the 1970s, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.

“They would say, ‘Why are you interested in something that doesn’t even exist?’ ” Horton recalled. “I always thought that time was going to come when a competent black lawyer would be considered for the federal district court.”