By Amanda Joerndt
Former U.S. Judge Nathaniel R. Jones was described as a Youngstown legend by many and has not only left a legacy in Youngstown but has influenced the nation through his fight for civil rights.
He died of congestive heart failure at 93 in his Cincinnati home, according to his daughter, Stephanie Jones, as reported by The Cincinnati Enquirer. Jones was a federal judge for 23 years and retired in 2002.
The Nathaniel R. Jones Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse opened in 2003 on the corner of East Commerce and Market streets in downtown Youngstown.
Todd Franko, former editor-in-chief of The Vindicator and director of development for the national journalism nonprofit Report for America, said Jones’ impact on the community is understated.
“Not enough people understand or know what Judge Jones accomplished from such an impoverished base as Youngstown,” Franko said. “If Judge Jones had been a football player, he’d be top of mind awareness of everybody in the Valley.”
Jones became the first African American assistant U.S. attorney for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in 1961.
He later served as assistant general counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, and investigated the causes of and solutions for racial unrest.
Jones also served as general counsel for the NAACP. He argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to a Tribune Chronicle article, Jones directed the NAACP’s litigation to “end Northern school desegregation, defend Affirmative Action and question discrimination against African Americans serving in the U.S. military.”
Jones first became involved with the NAACP as a youth council member in Youngstown. Eight decades later, he was awarded the organization’s highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, in 2016.
Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel said he got the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati to witness Jones receive the honorary NAACP award.
“I got to meet a lot of the people that he impacted,” he said.
Jones earned his undergraduate degree from Youngstown College in 1951 after serving in the U.S. Army Corps during World War II. He received a law degree from the college in 1956.
“He’s the most prolific graduate of Youngstown State ever,” Franko said. “I would challenge that someone did more for humankind on such a scale as Judge Jones.”
According to Tressel, Jones’ may have been “one of the most decorated people that ever came out of our city or university or law school.”
“I’m not sure there’s been a more of an impactful graduate in the history of our school,” Tressel said.
U.S. District Court Judge Benita Pearson said she was familiar with Jones’ work and service to Youngstown long before their paths crossed.
“His determination to embody the rights to the Constitution. … I’ve known him long before he’s known me, I’m sure,” she said.
Pearson said Jones was not only a public figure in the legal arena, but he was also notable for his service through his civil rights activism.
“For every judge and every lawyer, when you’re called upon to do what’s right, to do what’s in the courts with the law promoted by the constitution, he is going to be ranking right there,” she said.
Madonna Chism-Pinkard, part-time communications faculty at YSU and director of community relations at 21WFMJ-TV, developed a friendship with Jones through her parents’ friendship in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Chism-Pinkard said as a child, she was unappreciative of his work. But as she grew older, she began to understand the importance of his service through civil rights activism.
“He was there for us as a race and the African American community,” she said. “He was trusted with the NAACP and all the outsourcing groups that happened in the civil rights movement.”
His true legacy rests within his book titled “Answering the Call,” according to Chism-Pinkard.
“[It] chronicles how he got started in the law and how he used it to benefit and represent folks who were mistreated and civil rights cases,” she said. “He literally answered the call when he wrote that book.”
Chism-Pinkard said she was fortunate enough to see him one last time when he came into town.
“I know that his death was recent, and I’m just very happy that the last time he came to town, I had the opportunity to talk with him and get a picture with him and my best friend’s little boy,” she said.
YSU awards a Judge Nathaniel R. Jones Scholarship to minority and/or economically disadvantaged students with a 2.5 GPA or higher who are pursuing careers designed to advance intergroup relations. The award includes a public service requirement. Contact the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at 330-941-3505 for more information.