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Judge Earl B. Gilliam (1931-2001) | Special Collections & University Archives

Name: Judge Earl B. Gilliam (1931-2001)
Fuller Form: Earl Ben Gilliam

Historical Note:

Earl Ben Gilliam was born in Clovis, New Mexico on August 17, 1931. At age 10, Gilliam and his parents, James Earl and Lula Mae Gooden Gilliam, moved to San Diego. Gilliam attended Memorial Jr. High and San Diego High School where he played football and ran track. He graduated high school in 1949 and then attended San Diego State College where he studied business with an emphasis in accounting and a minor in economics. During college, Gilliam helped to establish the Delta Epsilon Chapter of KAP Fraternity. In 1953, he was accepted to Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and passed his Bar Examination in 1957. In the 1940’s, Gilliam’s family had opened the Seafood Louisiana Market on Imperial Avenue where Gilliam worked as a clerk during high school, college, and while on vacation from law school. While in law school, he also worked as a janitor and a playground director. Gilliam married Barbara Jean Crawford in 1956 and had two children, Kenneth Earl and Derrick James Gilliam. Gilliam and Barbara Jean divorced in 1975.

Gilliam began practicing law in 1957 as a deputy district attorney and entered into private practice in 1961. In 1963, he became the first African American Judge of the Municipal Court in San Diego County. In 1975, he was elevated by Governor Jerry Brown to the U.S. Superior Court.  Afterwards, President Jimmy Carter appointed Gilliam to the federal bench of the United States District Court of Southern California.

Besides his legal practice, Gilliam gave much of his time to serving the San Diego community. He was active in the following organizations: Traffic Committee for the California State Bar Association; National Association for the Advanced Colored People (NAACP); Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA); Senior Housing Charity; Salvation Army; Boys’ Club; Urban League; Navy League; Southeast Chamber of Commerce; and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was also a law instructor for ten years at Western State College.

Gilliam received many awards and accolades from the community. In 1981, he was the recipient of the Golden Man and Boy Award for the Boys’ Club of San Diego. Additionally, the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County changed their name to the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association in 1982 in honor of his professional accomplishments as an African American lawyer and judge.  After Gilliam’s death, the city named the Imperial Avenue post office in Gilliam’s name.

In 1978, Gilliam met his second wife, Rebecca Prater. They married in 1993. After two weeks of marriage, Gilliam had elective heart surgery. Complications during the surgery left him paralyzed and dialysis-dependent. Gilliam then retired to Senior Judge Status and continued his legal work part-time. Earl Ben Gilliam passed away on January 28, 2001. Upon his death a sculpture of him was placed at the San Diego Court’s Hall of Justice.

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