Judge: Discrimination of all kinds existed in Youngstown, country
By WANDA F. BAKER
Judge Joseph Donofrio didn’t have a lot of choices in his early years.
In 1939, his father was killed in an automobile accident in front of the family home. His mother was left alone to raise him and his younger brother, Geno, just as the Great Depression was about to start.
“We have known some pretty bleak years,” said Donofrio during an interview in his East Cherokee Drive home, where he and his wife, Angela, raised four children. He is an 88-year-old retired judge, serving in Youngstown Municipal Court and 7th District Court of Appeals.
He graduated from East High School in 1944, the day the Allied Forces invaded Normandy. He thought that was the end of his education.
“I had no hope of going to college, but I wanted to go in the worst way,” he said.
He entered the U.S. Air Force in August, completed basic training and returned home after the war ended.
He enrolled at Youngstown College under the G.I. Bill and majored in advertising.
The only thing that the G.I. Bill didn’t pay for was the college’s activity book, which cost $30. This book contained passes for football games, plays and other social events on campus, he said.
Donofrio doesn’t remember attending any of these events. He was busy going to school and working on the railroad as a crew dispatcher and timekeeper. As the man of the house, he had to support his mother and brother.
“It was kind of an annoyance to me to pay this fee. It was required, but I couldn’t use it,” he said.
He didn’t realize that the activity book was different from the ones given to African-American students. However, he is aware of other instances of discrimination in the community and the country.
During his seven years as a judge in the Youngstown Municipal Court in the late 1960s, he presided over many cases where African Americans had been charged with violating curfew laws.
Curfew laws were common all over the country at that time, said Donofrio. It was a way to intimidate African Americans into not engaging in civil disturbances. Many municipal judges would find people guilty of curfew violations without listening to merits of individual cases, he said.
Instead, Donofrio made it a point to listen to each case separately because there were instances where people would be out after curfew to get medicine for a sick person or another legitimate reason.
He is extremely proud of this stance. Others noticed, too. His court received a special citation from a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“People in those days –the elderly white side – they were fixed in their attitudes about the separation of blacks and even among other ethnic groups. … I was probably one of those who grew up and didn’t realize … until I started getting out in the world, how much discrimination there really was.”
As an Italian, Donofrio also experienced some discrimination, but not nearly to the extent faced by African Americans. “In those days, there were limited opportunities for blacks for employment, which you don’t think about when you’re going through it and growing up and going to school,” Donofrio said.
He remembers a time when someone at a local employment office told him Canfield Fair organizers needed workers. “Don’t send me a black,” was the directive.
This was a common attitude. “That’s the problems they faced at that time. Obviously, it went on to all other areas,” he said.
Donofrio said people who face such adversity can feel deeply humiliated and beaten down or – as in the case of Simeon Booker Jr., the noted journalist – use it as a motivational force.
“It gives you a drive to overcome that and also try to do things that would benefit that particular group,” he said.