Jewel Stradford LaFontant Biography
Lawyer, government official
Jewel Stradford LaFontant became a key player in the fields of law and politics long before the women's movement gained momentum in the 1960s. Her father, renowned U.S. Supreme Court attorney C. Francis Stradford, carefully groomed her to become a pioneer in the male-dominated arena of law. LaFontant achieved many firsts for women in the field, becoming in 1946 the first woman to graduate from University of Chicago Law School, in 1955 the first black woman to be name Assistant U.S. Attorney, and in 1973 the first woman Deputy Solicitor General of the United States.
LaFontant's first political experience came at the age of 12 when her father ran for precinct captain and encouraged her to distribute campaign leaflets in the community where they lived. But the exuberance she derived from visiting courtrooms with her father was the real catalyst in LaFontant's decision to follow in his footsteps. In fact, LaFontant credits him with helping her develop the ability to successfully compete in a milieu controlled by men. "My father always taught me there is room at the top regardless of sex," LaFontant told Andrew Malcolm in the New York Times, "and if you worked hard enough, recognition would come."
LaFontant took her father's advice and in 1943 became a third-generation graduate of Ohio's Oberlin College where, like her father and her grandfather before her, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science. Interestingly enough, Oberlin, Ohio, was once a stop on the Underground Railroad that is said to have helped one of LaFontant's distant ancestors, a runaway slave, to freedom.
In 1946 LaFontant became the first woman to earn a law degree from the University of Chicago. She was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1947. That same year she plunged into handling more than three thousand cases as a trial lawyer the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago, which provided free legal representation for the poor. LaFontant embraced her job with a passion, believing this a cause worthy of her training. Because of her deep commitment, she later became chairperson of the agency. In addition to this work and various positions with the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, LaFontant, as Jewel S. Rogers (her first married name), formed a Chicago law firm in 1949 with her first husband, John W. Rogers.
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed LaFontant to the post of Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. As the first African-American woman assigned to this position, she began a personal tradition of preparing the way for minorities and continued to hold her own in a forum dominated by men. In an Ebony interview, LaFontant admitted, "Men usually stereotype me or underestimate my ability because I'm female." So to prove that women are not any less qualified than their male counterparts, LaFontant not only joined the Cook County Bar Association and became its treasurer and a board member but was also elected secretary of the National Bar Association—a post she held from 1956 until 1964. During this time, LaFontant continued to lend her legal expertise to civic organizations and became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality. She was also instrumental in integrating several Chicago restaurants and the Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. After divorcing her first husband in 1961, she remarried and started the Chicago law firm Stradford, LaFontant, and LaFontant, with her father and new husband, H. Ernest LaFontant.
A true highlight in LaFontant's career came in 1963, when she argued and won her first case before the United States Supreme Court. The case, State of Illinois vs. Beatrice Lynum, later served as a case law for the 1966 constitutional law case Miranda vs. the State of Arizona, which helped establish the Miranda warning police must read upon placing a person under arrest.
A third generation Republican, LaFontant began to expand her political ties in the 1960s. Having been a supporter of then-U.S. senator Richard M. Nixon for more than a decade, she took an active role in the Republican National Convention of 1960, which yielded him as the party's presidential candidate. LaFontant was honored by being asked to travel with Nixon's running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, as his civil rights advisor for the length of the campaign. Nixon lost the election in 1960, but when he finally did become president of the United States in 1968, he did not forget LaFontant.
Throughout the 1960s, LaFontant honed her managerial skills as a member of the board of managers of the Chicago Bar Association, and she was chosen to serve as advisor to Inheritance Tax Division of the Illinois State Treasurer's Office from 1962 to 1966. She also tried to become a judge. In 1962 LaFontant was the first woman nominated for Superior Court judge in Illinois. Her campaign was unsuccessful, as was her 1970 campaign for Appellate Court judge. Though she did not win the elections, she did put up a good fight. Her opponent, Robert L. Hunter, presiding judge of Chicago's Divorce Division, admitted in Ebony that when LaFontant was running for the Superior Court position, "She scared the hell out of me." Commenting on the unsuccessful election and a later bid for a spot on the Illinois Appellate Court in Cook County, LaFontant revealed in a New York Times interview, "I felt I owed it to my sex to run, but never again. I've paid my dues. I hate to lose. But I have matured and realize losing makes you a bigger person after all. It sure knocks any conceit out of you."
LaFontant certainly did become "bigger." In 1969, U.S. President Nixon turned to LaFontant to serve as vice-chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs. Nixon also appointed her to be a representative to the United Nations in 1972. And in 1973 Nixon appointed LaFontant to be the first woman to hold the post of Deputy Solicitor General in the Justice Department. She excelled at the position until 1975, when she returned to Chicago to practice law.
In 1976, after the death of her second husband, LaFontant continued to practice law and acted as president of Stradford, LaFontant, Fisher, and Malkin law firm (the name later changed to LaFontant, Wilkins, Jones, and Ware). In 1983, she joined the prestigious 114-lawyer firm of Vedder, Price, Kaufman and Kammholz, where she practiced corporate law until March of 1989. In 1985 she was admitted to the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals. In 1989—the year she married her third husband, Naguib Soby MANkarious—she returned to government service when President George Bush appointed her as Ambassador-at-Large and U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs of the State Department. LaFontant was the first African-American woman appointed to serve in these positions. When she left these positions in 1993, she returned to practicing law at the Chicago firm of Holleb and Coff. LaFontant lost her life to breast cancer on May 31, 1997.
Her success in the American legal and political arenas helped erode the barrier of discrimination that has undermined the ascent of blacks and women in these fields in the past. She also served on the board of directors, often as the first woman, for several of America's largest corporations, including her son's Ariel Capital Management. Throughout her career LaFontant told women to concentrate on their work and not on their sex in order to find success. When asked by a New York Times interviewer to offer advice to women in business, she said: "You can't see yourself first as a woman or a black and then trade in on it. You've got to get the job done. Then recognition will come." Her life was proof of that. Her legacy papers are collected in the archives of Oberlin College.
Swiger, Elinor Porter, Women Lawyers at Work, Julian Messner, 1978.
Barrister, Winter 1985.
Ebony, February 1974.
Jet, October 3, 1983; August 7,1989; August 3, 1992; July 5, 1993; June 23, 1997.
New York Times, March 16, 1972; September 10, 1972; June 3, 1997.
Sepia, November 1976.
Washington Post, February 2, 1974; June 3, 1997.
Working Woman, February 1980; February 1981.
"Jewel LaFontant-MANkarious," Oberlin College Archives, www.oberlin.edu/archive/holdings/finding/RG30/SG310/adminhist.html (April 26, 2005).
—Barbara L. Baker and Sara Pendergast
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