Skip to main content

Judge Earl Ben Gilliam Papers

Identifier: MS-0494

Scope and Contents

The Earl B. Gilliam Papers document five decades of Gilliam’s career as a judge in San Diego County. The collection includes news clippings, photos, correspondence, invitations, federal bench nominations, court cases, class notes, scrapbooks, award certificates, court dockets, and judicial questionnaires. The majority of the material dates from around the 1940’s to the late 1990's, and highlights Gilliam’s community service, as well as his appointments to local, state, and federal judgeships.  The collection is divided into five series: Personal Files (1945-1999), Professional Files (1956-2011), Memorial Files (2001), Scrapbooks (1945-2001), and Video Files (1979-2004).

The Personal Files (1945-1999) document Gilliam’s high school experience and achievements, as well as his community involvement. This series includes personal photographs of his childhood, friends’ memorial programs, San Diego High School programs, personal correspondence, certificates of achievement, the Sun Reporter newspaper, the Lighthouse newspaper, the San Diego Observer newspaper, and materials regarding Gilliam’s hospitalization in the 1990’s. The files are arranged in alphabetical order with minimal documentation regarding his early childhood.

The Professional Files (1956-2011) largely document Gilliam’s career as a municipal court and federal bench judge. The series includes congratulatory correspondence, court dockets, appointment books, news clippings, biography for federal judgeship, courtroom procedures, judicial questionnaires, photographs, federal bench petition, retirement documents from U.S. District Judgeship, and judicial application. Highlights include correspondence and news clippings of Gilliam’s appointment to the federal bench. The series is arranged alphabetically by folder title.

The Memorial Files (2001) document Gilliam’s passing. These files include letters of condolence, obituaries, and information regarding funeral arrangements gathered by Gilliam’s wife, Rebecca Prater. These files are the smallest of the series and are arranged alphabetically.

The Scrapbook Files (1945-2001) consist of five scrapbooks, two of which that document a trial of 197 counts of federal tax evasion and fraud by Nancy Hoover Hunter. The files include newspaper clippings and correspondence regarding the trial. Much of the correspondence is unsupportive of Gilliam’s final verdict. The rest of the scrapbooks include news clippings of Gilliam’s appointments from Municipal Judge to Federal Bench judge, news articles of personal interest, and personal photographs.

The Video Files (1979-2004) contain video tributes to Gilliam, reunion ceremonies, an interview of Gilliam on audio cassette tape, and oral histories. The series is in chronological order.


  • Creation: 1945-2011
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1965-1981


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The copyright interests in some or all of these materials have not been transferred to San Diego State University. Copyright resides with the creator(s) of materials contained in the collection or their heirs. The nature of archival collections is such that multiple creators are often applicable and copyright status may be difficult or even impossible to determine. In any case, the user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, obtaining publication rights and copyright infringement. When requesting images from Special Collections & University Archives for publication, we require a signed agreement waiving San Diego State University of any liability in the event of a copyright violation.

Biographical 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 Black 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 Black 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. He passed away on January 28, 2001. Upon his death a sculpture of him was placed at the San Diego Court’s Hall of Justice.


10.84 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Arrangement Note

I.   Personal Files (1946-1999)

II.  Professional Files (1956-2011)

III. Memorial Files (2001)

IV. Scrapbooks (1945-2001)

V.  Audio/Video Files (1979-2004)

Source of Acquisition

Rebecca Prater

Accruals and Additions


Related Materials

Alpha Pi Boulé Records

Reverend George Walker Smith Papers

Carlin Integration Case Records

Citizen Coordinate for Century 3 Records

Harold K. Brown Papers, 1956-2000

Judge Earl Ben Gilliam Papers
Jessica Guardado
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections & University Archives Repository

5500 Campanile Dr. MC 8050
San Diego CA 92182-8050 US