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First African American Woman to Argue a Case in the U.S. Supreme Court

Jewel S. Lafontant-Mankarious was born as Jewel Carter Stradford, on April 28th 1922, in Chicago, into a very interesting family of class and achievement. Her father was a noted attorney, C. Francis Stradford who was the co-founder of the National Bar Association and her mother was Aida Arabella Stradford, a South Carolina school teacher who was a descendent of Scipio Vaughan an African American artisan and former slave. After gaining his freedom Scipio inspired the “Back to Africa” movement in an effort to encourage his family to connect with their roots in Africa, specifically the Yoruba of West Arica in the early 19th century. Vaughan married Maria Conway who contributed Yoruba Nigerian, Cherokee andScottish ancestry to the family.

Jewel was raised in Chicago, graduated from Englewood High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Oberlin College in 1943. While attending Oberlin she was captain of the volleyball team, a member of the Musical Union, Forensic Union, Cosmopolitan Club and enjoyed numerous other activities. When she began her studies of law, in 1943, at the University of Chicago she was the only African American woman in her class. In 1946, she was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School.

In 1947 Jewel was admitted to the Illinois Bar and soon afterwards she began working for the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago, yet she was not at that time allowed to join the Chicago Bar Association because of her race. Jewel handled more than three thousand cases as a trial lawyer, providing free legal representation for her clients. During this period she was also an officer in the Chicago chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Stradford married John W. Rogers, a juvenile court judge. The couple had a son, John W. Rogers Jr., who later became the founder of Ariel Capital Management, the largest black-owned investment firm in the nation. In the late 1940’s she and her then husband, John Rogers, Sr., began their law practice together, Rogers and Rogers and Strayhorn.

Jewel and John Rogers divorced in 1961. Later that year she married H. Ernest Lafontant, an attorney, who died in 1976. She remarried in 1989, this time to Naguib S. Mankarious, an international business consultant.

Under the Eisenhower administration she became the first African American woman to serve as assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Richard Nixon appointed her as the Deputy Solicitor General, and again, she was the first African American woman to hold that post. At that time she was also considered by President Richard Nixon as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States.

During George H.W. Bush’s administration from 1989 to 1993, she assumed the roles of U.S. Ambassador at large and U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs. She held this position during a time when there were massive outpourings of refugees from the former Soviet Union and when Mozambican refugees were flooding into Malawi and South Africa. This public service required her to travel extensively to meet with foreign officials and to view firsthand the conditions in refugee centers around the world. She used these visits to focus public attention on the plight of refugees. She also served as the vice chairperson of the U.S. Advisory Commission on International, Educational and Cultural Affairs.

During her career, she served on more than twenty corporate boards, including: Jewel Companies, Inc., Continental Bank, Mobil Corporation, Revlon, Inc., Ariel Capital Management and Pan American Airlines.She also served on the Boards of Trustees of Tuskegee Institute, Harvard University, and Oberlin College, she was not, however, an active trustee since her corporate board memberships created an assortment of scheduling conflicts and thus she missed many meetings. She was secretary of the National Bar Association from 1956 to 1964, was active in the Cook County Bar Association, Delta Sigma Theta sorority, the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Economic Club of Chicago and the Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1963 Rogers won her first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the State of Illinois vs. Beatrice Lynn. Although a Republican, Rogers was a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s Council on Minority Business Enterprise between 1965 and 1967. She was the first African American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

She received many awards including the Cook County Bar Association Achievement Award; the University of Chicago citation for public service; the CARE Foundation’s International Humanitarian Award, the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America Humanitarian Award; and the Award for Internationalism from the American Women for International Understanding, as well as numerous honorary degrees.

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