(Oberlin College Archives)

Legal precedent

Jewel C. Stradford Lafontant broke many barriers as a lawyer and public servant.

The day before Richard Nixon was to be nominated for US president at the 1960 Republican National Convention, delegate-at-large Jewel Stradford Lafontant, JD’46, received a surprise request: to give a seconding speech. “It was easy for me to do because I really liked Richard Nixon,” Lafontant told oral historian Timuel Black, AM’54, in the second volume of his oral history series, Bridges of Memory (Northwestern University Press, 2008).

During Nixon’s unsuccessful presidential campaign (he lost to John F. Kennedy), Lafontant traveled with Nixon’s running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, as Lodge’s civil rights adviser. In 1972, after Nixon was elected to a second term, he appointed Lafontant deputy solicitor general. A third-generation Republican, like her father and grandfather before her, she later served as ambassador-at-large and coordinator of refugee affairs in the George H. W. Bush administration.

Born in 1922, Jewel Stradford was, in Black’s description, “a member of one of Chicago’s most historically important and prestigious African-American families.” Her mother, Aida Carter Stradford, was an artist and homemaker; her father, C. Francis Stradford, was a prominent attorney and cofounder of the National Bar Association.

Her grandfather, J. B. Stradford, had been a lawyer and hotel owner in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until the notorious race riot of 1921. Falsely accused of inciting the riot, he fled to Chicago, where his son’s legal work prevented him from being extradited. “That’s why I thought that being a lawyer was just the greatest thing that you could possibly do,” Lafontant told Black. “Being a lawyer, you could save lives.” (In 1996, the family received a public apology from the State of Oklahoma and her grandfather was cleared of any wrongdoing.)

Beginning in grade school, Lafontant held a job in her father’s office during the summers; she was his secretary when he worked on the 1940 Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee, which struck down racially restrictive housing covenants. She attended then-integrated Englewood High School and went on to study political science at Oberlin College, graduating in 1943. As well as a third-generation Republican, she was a third-generation Oberlin graduate; her father, grandfather, and grandmother had all attended.

Lafontant’s parents “had always fought any form of segregation every step of the way, going back to when my grandfather was in Tulsa,” she recalled. While a student at the University of Chicago Law School, she worked to integrate restaurants in Chicago: “Often we were spat upon and physically abused,” she recalled in a 1991 Chicago Sun-Times story. As well as participating in sit-ins, Lafontant brought lawsuits against restaurants, forcing some of them out of business. At Chicago, where she was one of six women in her law school class, she met John W. Rogers, a Tuskegee airman attending on the GI Bill. In 1946 Lafontant became the first African American woman to earn a degree from the Law School.

Shortly after Lafontant graduated, she and Rogers married. Despite her qualifications, Lafontant struggled to find employment after graduation. She could not find a white-owned firm that would hire her, and she was not permitted to join the Chicago Bar Association. Eventually Lafontant became a trial attorney for the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau (today the Legal Aid Society), where she handled landlord-tenant disputes. After her husband graduated, the two went into practice together.

In May 1955, on the recommendation of Senator Everett Dirksen, President Eisenhower appointed Lafontant assistant US Attorney for the northern district of Illinois. She handled primarily immigration and deportation matters until she resigned three years later, when her only child, University trustee John W. Rogers Jr., U-High’76, was born.

When John Jr. was three years old, Lafontant and Rogers divorced. She had joined her father’s law practice when she later married her second husband, H. Ernest Lafontant, a lawyer who had been born in Haiti. The couple went into practice with her father as Stradford, Lafontant & Lafontant.

In 1963 she argued and won what she considered the most important case in her career: Lynum v. Illinois, her first case before the Supreme Court. Lafontant’s client, Beatrice Lynum, had been convicted of selling narcotics. Lafontant argued that Lynum’s confession was not legally admissible since the police had threatened to take her children. The 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona, which established the “Miranda warnings” so familiar from police dramas, drew on the precedent set in Lynum.

Six years later, when Nixon appointed her US deputy solicitor general, Lafontant became the highest-ranking woman in his administration. She served briefly under Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, then under Robert Bork, AB’48, JD’53, until returning to her Chicago law practice in 1975. (Years later, when Ronald Reagan tried to appoint Bork to the Supreme Court, Lafontant was one of the few prominent African Americans to support his nomination.)

Lafontant returned to Washington during the first Bush administration, serving as ambassador-at-large and coordinator of refugee affairs in the State Department. Lafontant’s second husband had died in 1976; after moving to Washington in 1989 she married her third husband, Naguib S. Mankarious, an Egyptian businessman.

In addition to her glass ceiling–shattering work in politics, Lafontant did the same in corporate America, serving on the boards of Jewel Companies, Mobil, Equitable Life Assurance, Trans World Airlines, Revlon, Hanes, and eventually her son’s firm, Ariel Capital Management. She enjoyed the work: “You begin to learn from the inside just how these large businesses are actually run,” she said, “and business is what has made America great.” Lafontant also served on the boards of Oberlin College, Howard University, and Tuskegee Institute.

Lafontant credited her success to her parents, who taught her to think independently and to connect with people of different backgrounds. “Our people are so burdened with the race issue,” she told Black. “They reach out only to people that they already know and trust because those people have exactly the same kind of problems that they have. That’s why all forms of segregation have to go out the window.”

At her funeral—attended by Republicans and Democrats—Jesse Jackson noted, “When you look at the makeup of the crowd today, it says how universal her character was, her reputation was.”