He grew up in Smoky Hollow. His father worked in the mills and later did janitorial work. His mother took in laundry. As a high school youth, he wrote for a local newspaper and organized a boycott of a segregated roller skating rink. He rose from working class beginnings to become a judge in the second highest court in the land as a justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The new Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Youngstown bears his name. Nathaniel R. Jones.
Nathaniel Raphael Jones was born in Youngstown on May 13, 1926 to Nathaniel Bacon Jones and Lillian Isabelle (Brown) Jones. After his father was laid off from his work in the mills during the depression, he washed windows and did janitorial work in local theaters, often taking Nathaniel along. His mother eventually became the subscription manager of The Buckeye Review, the local black newspaper. Publisher and lawyer J. Maynard Dickerson took young Nathaniel under his wing, allowing him to write a sports column in the paper.
As a high school student, he was active in the NAACP youth council, organizing a successful boycott of a roller skating link that allowed blacks to skate only on Monday nights. After serving in the Army Air Force, he went to a restaurant by the name of DuRell’s in the Youngstown area that refused to serve him. He filed suit against them, winning a judgment that did little more than pay his attorney’s fees. But he made a point. So began a career of pursuing civil rights for blacks.
He went to Youngstown College, and then received a law degree from Youngstown University, graduating in 1956 with his law degree. He set up a private practice, until named by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland in 1961. He was the first black to serve in the district in this position. In 1967 he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders.
After briefly returning to private practice, in 1969 he agreed to serve as general counsel for the national NAACP. At a recognition banquet hosted by the Youngstown NAACP the following year, he described the situation of blacks in the U.S. in these terms: “We still live in the basement of the great society. We must keep plodding until we get what we are striving for.” In his role as general counsel he strove to change that situation, directing all litigation for the NAACP. He argued cases challenging school segregation in the North and against racial bias in the military. He persuaded Governor George Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the one surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman in 1951.
His fight against racial injustice was fought not only in the courts of the United States. In the 1980’s, he was arrested in South Africa for protesting the nation’s apartheid policies. Later, he helped in the drafting of a new South African constitution, ending apartheid. He also consulted with other African countries on setting up their judicial systems.
On August 28, 1979 President Jimmy Carter nominated Nathaniel R. Jones to the to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He assumed senior status in 1995 and retired on March 30, 2002. During his term on the bench, he taught at the University of Cincinnati law school and at Harvard Law School. On May 6, 2003, the second federal courthouse established in Youngstown was named in his honor.
After retirement from the court, he became Senior Counsel for Blank Rome LLP and co-chairman of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He wrote a memoir, published in 2016: ”Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America.” That same year, he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, their highest award, recognizing outstanding achievement by an African-American.
Nathaniel R. Jones died of congestive heart failure at age 93 on January 26, 2020. He was one of the most distinquished figures to rise from working class beginnings in Youngstown. His comments to the Cincinnati Enquirer may give us a clue to his distinction. He said, “The key to prevailing as a minority in a segregated, oppressive society is to not let the prevailing stereotypes define who you are.”
[Special thanks to Nick Manolukas for suggesting this article]