Senior U.S. District Judge Frank Howell Seay of Oklahoma, believed to be the only sitting federal judge who is part Native American, did not learn of his heritage until he was in his 50s and already on the bench.
Seay, 72, talked about his discovery during a recent interview for National American Indian Heritage Month, which is celebrated in November to recognize the contributions of the first people of the United States.
“I really knew nothing of my heritage when I was growing up,” Seay said. After the death of his parents, his only aunt told him that his paternal great grandfather was a full-blooded American Indian, probably a Cherokee.
Seay later uncovered an old photo of his great grandfather, which suggested his Native American roots. He traced his family line through Missouri and Arkansas and learned that his great grandfather had fought in the Civil War, but he was never able to uncover any other details. “It is a shame I did not expect this all along,” said Seay, who still honors his heritage and encourages others to trace their genealogical roots.
A lifelong resident of Oklahoma, Seay was influenced by his small town upbringing. He credits his time on his grandparents’ farm for instilling in him a strong work ethic. His decision to pursue a career in law came from his father, a personal injury lawyer. “I grew up in the courtroom and that was what I knew,” Seay said.
Seay was a judge in the state District Court of Oklahoma for 11 years before he was appointed to the United States Eastern District Court of Oklahoma in 1979.
As a federal judge, Seay was recognized for reversing the rulings that led to the unjust convictions of two men in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma. The John Grishman book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, depicts the story. Seay is quoted in the book: “God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while people who have not had fair trials are executed. That almost happened in this case."