Jones used G.I. Bill, VA to leverage change in activity book issue
By JUSTIN PASSARO
Nathaniel “Nate” Jones’ name is a familiar one in Youngstown; the second federal courthouse in the city was named for him.
At 87, he has worked as a lawyer, a public servant, a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the general counsel for the NAACP.
Before all that, however, he was simply a student attending Youngstown College on the G.I. Bill. He and a friend, John Muntean, also a student, went to the business office to pick up their activity books. Jones’ friend, who was white, had a noticeably thicker book. Jones’ book looked as if it had several pages torn out. In fact, they had been. They were told that it wasn’t a mistake.
Jones and Muntean did a little sleuthing, asking both black and white students what type of activity books they had received.
“The activity books contained tickets for various functions. The tickets for social functions were removed for black students,” said Jones. “That meant the dances and the mixers and the parties and all – they were not, by the time they reached the black students, – the tickets were not there. What remained were tickets for the so-called non-social kinds of activities: Football games, basketball games, school-wide events that didn’t involve any necessary social intercourse or social mixing.
While many things had changed for black students on campus, the activity book policy hadn’t been one of them. After World War II, there was an influx of students, both black and white, at colleges across the nation, with the government picking up the tab.
“Well, when I discovered that the black students were being treated differently with regards to activity books and I couldn’t get an answer from the business office as to why, I went to see the president (Howard Jones), told him about the situation and wanted an answer.”
That marked a turning point in this discriminatory practice.
“(President Jones) received me, heard me out and was obviously upset. I don’t know the nature of the upset, whether he was upset because he was hearing about it for the first time or upset because we knew about it,” said Jones.
Jones wasn’t planning to complain only to the college president, he was prepared to take the matter to a higher authority.
“We were going to file a complaint with the Veteran’s Administration over the college receiving funds from the Veteran’s Administration to provide services to the students and, with regard to the students of color, we were being short-changed. We were not getting the full benefit of whatever funds were being given to the college,” he said.
“(President Jones) asked us not to go any further. He promised to look into it and straighten it out. Being the president, he had the power to put an end to it – and he did. We soon got complete activity books with all the tickets intact.”
The incident will figure prominently in a book Jones is writing. He’s been at it for nine years and is in the editing phase right now.
“I hope it will be published after the first of the year,” Jones said. “And (the book) spells out the (incident) in greater detail. Maybe that will provide readers with a lot of insight into the times that I grew up in and my own experiences.”
That same activity book practice resulted in a famous journalist leaving Youngstown College in the 1930s. Simeon Booker Jr. was so irate at the practice that he left to attend Virginia Union University. He became the first black reporter at The Washington Post, before going to work for JET and Ebony magazines.
“Simeon – I know him. I worked for him when I was in college,” said Jones. “One of my side gigs was serving as a stringer (free-lance writer) for him when he was the Washington editor for Ebony and JET magazines. It was a nice little bit of change once in a while when I submitted something that they used.
“I’m glad Youngstown (State University) is recognizing him,” said Jones. “He’s a giant.”
Booker Jr. will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree during fall commencement. He will also receive a complete activity card.
While both are Youngstown natives and notables, Jones was the first in his family to attend college.
Jones was born in 1926 the Smoky Hollow neighborhood shortly after his parents moved to the city. Life soon after became a struggle for people of all races.
“The Depression hit (in 1929) and it was a matter of survival, economic survival. Jobs were gone. And parents had a very difficult time. Not just black parents, but white parents, too. My father lost his job in the mill and he had to scrape around and get part time, odd jobs. My mother did the same thing.
“Then the New Deal came down. Franklin Roosevelt developed his programs – providing food and clothing and work projects. You know, some of the streets that are paved around Youngstown, they were paved with federal money. To provide jobs for persons who were out of work.”
Eventually, the country was lifted from the Depression only to find itself in a World War. Thousands of young men, including Jones, were drafted to serve their country. Afterward, the country thanked those who served by providing a free education.
“Without the G.I. Bill of Rights, I would not have been able to get to college. And that’s true of the number of returning veterans who enrolled at Youngstown College. They could live at home and attend classes. It was a very important factor in persons advancing their lives and their careers,” said Jones.
While black soldiers shared the burden of war with white soldiers, they weren’t always treated equally at home.
“At that period of time, America was much different than it is now. Discrimination was rather common in the Youngstown community as in other communities in the North. Restaurants were not open to you. The movies required blacks to usually sit upstairs in the balcony. There were seven swimming pools and only one was open to blacks. The YMCAs were segregated.
“So what was happening on campus was what was happening in the community, generally. The leverage we had to deal with that situation at Youngstown College was the G.I. Bill of Rights and the Veteran’s Administration and that’s what we did.”
Jones said the attitude of students also changed after the war.
“Before the war, it was pretty blatant – the mistreatment of blacks. I wasn’t a student there at that time, but the history points out that black students were not welcome in the (Youngstown College) cafeteria pre- World War II. There was an informal policy that permitted the exclusion of black students from having their lunch in the cafeteria,” said Jones.
“That was a sore point. White students would object to black students coming into the cafeteria. But after World War II, when there was an avalanche of student enrollment – students of color – and that policy that practice, went by the boards.”
While student attitudes changed, old practices didn’t.
“Another difference (for the races) was physical education. Black students could not take their physical education programs down at the central Y. they had to go to the West Federal Street Y. That was because of the policy of the Y, which (the college) did not challenge.”
Jones blames a system that was slow to change.
“The problem wasn’t so much the student interaction. It was a system, a structure, that had been placed for years there at the university that was not welcoming to blacks,” said Jones. “But after the war, with the
G.I. Bill of Rights, that provided pressure for change. There were I’m sure students who they had their own personal views, but in terms of the ability to function on campus and in class, there wasn’t a great deal of resistance (to integration).”
Jones also believes the resistance to change may be attributed, in part, to faculty.
“The big problem I think was the make up of faculty. There were no black faculty members, and that was always a disappointment,” he said. “The only black who ever taught a class there was an Episcopal minister named Walter Payne Stanley. He taught class a couple semesters, but there were no faculty members in any departments.
“I had a professor of economic history and he slipped one day and used the term, ‘niggers,’ in his lecture. Then he caught himself and after class he apologized to me and tried to explain why that was an innocent statement – that what he was trying to do was speak in the vernacular of the times ’cause this dealt with the slave period. He was offering an explanation, which I didn’t accept.”
Jones was a student at Youngstown College from 1946 to1956, receiving undergraduate and law degrees. Also, he was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity, the first African-American chairman of the PanHellenic Council, and a member of The Jambar and The Neon yearbook staffs.
For the first four years after college, he worked in private practice. He then became executive director of the Fair Employment Practices Commission. From 1962-1967, he served as the first African-American assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland. He left there to work as an assistant general council in the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
He returned to private practice, served as a lawyer for the NAACP in 1969 and argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He worked to end segregation in Northern schools, defend affirmative action measures and more. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Jones to the U.S. Court of for the Sixth Circuit. He retired from that post in 2002.