Born on 6 January 1947 in Jackson, Mississippi, Henry Travillion Wingate displayed his leadership potential while at Brinkley Junior-Senior High School, where he was active in school government and athletics as well as in the fight against racial injustice. Wingate integrated the Paramount movie theater and the main branch of the Jackson public library and was the first person of color to purchase a train ticket at the previously all-white train depot. He suffered injuries and was arrested while taking part in a student protest march in downtown Jackson.
Wingate earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy of religion from Grinnell College in 1969 and a degree from Yale Law School three years later. While at Yale, Wingate was a member of the Black Law Students Union and the Trial Advocacy Team, and after his first year, he received a fellowship from the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council to intern with a southern civil rights organization. Wingate became the first fellow to choose an assignment in Mississippi, working with attorney Mel Leventhal, who had been fighting on behalf of civil rights in Jackson since 1965.
After graduation, Wingate worked first for private attorneys and then with Jackson’s Community Legal Aid while awaiting the start of his military career as judge advocate with the US Navy Reserve. On active duty from 1973 to 1976, he was the Navy’s only African American judge advocate from 1973 to 1975. As a lieutenant with the US Navy Legal Services Office, he served as a criminal trial attorney and senior assistant defense counsel. Judge Wingate began doing criminal defense in 1973 and moved to criminal prosecution from 1974 to 1976. From 1976 to 1980 Wingate served as a special assistant attorney general with the State of Mississippi. He then spent four years as assistant district attorney for the 7th District Circuit Court District (Hinds and Yazoo Counties), the first African American to hold such a full-time position. In February 1984 Wingate became assistant US attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, prosecuting violations of federal criminal laws, including narcotics offenses, official corruption, white-collar crimes, and violent crimes. In this capacity, he spearheaded Operation Pretense, a corruption investigation that ultimately ensnared fifty-six Mississippi county supervisors.
After Wingate had served for a year in the US attorney’s office, Sen. Thad Cochran recommended him to sit on the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. Pres. Ronald Reagan nominated Wingate to the post, and after US Senate confirmation, he was sworn in on 19 October 1985. One of only eight African Americans among Reagan’s three hundred judicial appointees, Wingate became the first African American appointed to a life-tenured federal judgeship in Mississippi. In 2003 Wingate became the court’s chief judge. He has served on the 5th Circuit Judicial Council and as president of the District Court Judges Association for the 5th Circuit.
Wingate remains active in community affairs, serving on a number of civic boards and as an adjunct professor at the Mississippi College School of Law. He is a prolific public speaker on the subjects of judicial administration, professional development, personal development for youth, racial reconciliation, and the Bible. He created the Court-Watch Program, which educates youth and adults about courts and the law, provides gospel performances for the incarcerated, and offers guidance on taking the Law School Aptitude Test.
- Almanac of the Federal Judiciary (2008)
- Federal Judicial Center website, www.fjc.gov
- Mississippi Senate Concurrent Resolution 595 (2016), https://legiscan.com/MS/text/SC595/id/1363234