A retired prosecutor in search of recognition
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — How Much Does History Hold?
For Stephanie Wright, it’s as light as the thinnest of books, a 259-page volume that turned her life upside down for months and set her on an unusual and determined quest for recognition. She appealed to the Department of Justice and some of the most senior officials and judges in the federal court system in the Midwest.
None of this had anything to do with what was in the book. It was what was left out that bothered her – her name.
Ms. Wright was a federal prosecutor from Iowa who made history in her own way. She was Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, the office’s first African-American prosecutor. For 24 years, from 1994 until her retirement in 2018, she served as the only black prosecutor in the Federal District, which spans the largely rural northern half of the state.
Last year, leafing through a new book – “The History of the District Court in the Northern District of Iowa (1882-2020)” – Ms. Wright turned to Appendix A. It included a list of 88 assistant American attorneys who had worked in the attorney’s office for more than a century. To his surprise and dismay, his name was missing.
The book was published by the Northern District of Iowa Historical Society, a volunteer group. Ms Wright, who had never been a member but had ordered two copies of the book, sent an email pointing out the omission.
Within minutes, she received an apology from CJ Williams, a federal judge and member of the historical society, who called the omission “clearly inadvertent.” Ms Wright’s name was the only one left on the list of assistant US attorneys that had surfaced so far.
“We focused on the content of the book, not the appendices,” Judge Williams wrote in an email. He added he couldn’t take a call from Ms Wright at the time ‘because I’m on the bench in a jury trial’.
In a state of turmoil, Ms Wright sent another email to the historical society to express “her shock and disappointment” and to demand action. She requested that an online version of the book be updated, that two corrected hardback copies be printed for her free of charge, and that notices be placed in Iowa newspapers that the book had been repaired.
The omission, Ms Wright wrote, “erased my name from history”.
The online version of the book has been corrected, but Ms Wright was told it was ‘prohibitively expensive’ to print a new hardcover version. No notices will appear in the newspapers.
She was not calm.
“I’m not going to be forgotten,” Ms Wright said in an interview. “This country has ignored black women – black people – and we don’t find out about our history until years later.”
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She was having lunch at a restaurant in Cedar Rapids, where the Northern District is located and where, throughout Black History Month in February, she had paid $4,000 for a billboard atop a building in the downtown. It featured a photo of her wearing a white dress, arms crossed, and the caption: “Stephanie Johnson Wright, First Assistant African American United States Attorney, Northern District of Iowa (1994-2018).”
She said the billboard was part of her response to her exclusion from the history book. “I’m not going to be one of those people who is hidden away,” she said.
Ms Wright said one of her two adult daughters asked her why she was determined to correct a small line in an obscure book that very few people would see. No more than 100 copies of the book are in print, and it is kept in only a handful of libraries in the Midwest that are not open to the public.
“Have you seen the movie ‘Hidden Figures’?” she said, referring to the Oscar-nominated film about three black women mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s. “I didn’t even know these women existed. I think there are probably a lot of people who were the first in their families, the first in this country. But they decided not to talk. But by doing this you are preventing someone else who can be encouraged and inspired.
Ms. Wright, 71, was raised in the Ville de St. Louis neighborhood, a historic black neighborhood, by a single mother. Her father was incarcerated for part of her childhood. As a teenager, she got a scholarship to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Minnesota.
“I was the only black girl in my class at boarding school, which was really great for me because I always felt comfortable around white people,” she said. “I have never been intimidated.”
After graduating from the University of Missouri, she worked for John Deere in Iowa before attending Northwestern School of Law in Portland, Oregon at age 38. She was hired by the American attorney in Cedar Rapids on the recommendation of a civil rights activist. Ms. Wright had worked with.
As a prosecutor, she secured a guilty plea in the 1997 case of a cross being burned outside the home of an interracial couple. She then specialized in cracking down on companies that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In May 2022, Ms Wright sent a four-page letter to the Justice Department, which oversees US prosecutors’ offices.
She wrote that she did not believe her omission from the history book was an accident. She alleged “intentional discrimination” against her as a black woman, which she said was part of a pattern that began when she was an assistant attorney in the United States.
In the letter, she cited being passed over for work overseeing civil rights cases, which she said was ‘retaliation’ for her support of a fellow prosecutor who had sued the U.S. Attorney’s Office for discrimination on the grounds. on age after being made redundant. (The case involved messy internal politics and featured the rarity of a federal judge, Stephanie Rose, on the stand. The former prosecutor who sued lost her case.)
Ms Wright wrote to the Ministry of Justice that she had been discouraged by a private lawyer from filing her own discrimination complaint because it could result in the dismissal.
Timothy Duax, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, whose tenure as assistant U.S. attorney in the office overlapped with Ms Wright’s, declined to address her specific claims. But in a statement, Duax said his office “does not condone any form of unlawful discrimination or harassment, or engage in unlawful retaliation against employees who file such complaints.”
Richard Murphy, a retired prosecutor from the Cedar Rapids office and former treasurer of the historical society, said he was the one who compiled the list in question for Schedule A, and that Ms Wright’s omission was an honest mistake, not a slight or any sort of retaliation.
He said he relied for the schedule on a spreadsheet kept by someone who worked in the prosecutor’s office. “Stephanie’s name has not been added to the list of people who have left the office for any reason,” Mr Murphy said. “To the extent that there is any blame to be had, lay it on me. I relied on something that was inaccurate.
He strongly objected to Ms Wright’s claim that the omission was deliberate discrimination. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I feel bad, she apparently feels the need to claim it was done for ethnic reasons, which is not true.”
In an unsigned response to Ms. Wright’s May 2022 letter to the Department of Justice, the General Counsel for the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys wrote that there was no reason to suggest that the omission was anything but inadvertent.
The attorney general added that if Ms Wright wanted to press charges for “misconduct” at the Iowa prosecutor’s office, she should contact the inspector general of the Department of Justice.
She did not do it. Instead, she found a solution from another source, a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which reviews cases from the Northern District of Iowa.
The judge, Jane Kelly, working with an Eighth Circuit librarian, Eric Brust, arranged in October to have three corrected pages of Schedule A printed with adhesive backing. They would be distributed to libraries holding copies of the history book, to be pasted on the inaccurate list of assistant U.S. attorneys.
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Wright drove to the Cedar Rapids Federal Courthouse, an arched glass-fronted building, to see if the new pages had been pasted. Mrs. Wright now lives with her husband, Charles, a retired postal service supervisor, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She and her husband had previously made trips to courthouses in Des Moines and St. Louis, where copies of the history of the Northern District of Iowa are also kept.
In the fourth-floor library of the Cedar Rapids courthouse, Hilary Naab, the librarian, pulled the book — a decidedly unassuming tome for all the anguish it had caused — from a shelf of dictionaries and other references. At a table with a cut-out red heart and felt flowers – Valentine’s Day had just passed – Ms Wright opened the hardcover with its gold title. She skipped previous chapters on judges, major cases tried in the district, and courthouses, until she came to Appendix A. Its 41 pages list court personnel through the decades.
The three new pages listing the Assistant US Attorneys have been carefully glued together. For a moment, Ms Wright wondered aloud if they could have been added expressly for her visit, after she had called for an appointment. But she noticed the edges of the pages were slightly worn, suggesting they had been there for more than a few days, compressed by the weight of history, in a place little visited now that most legal research is done online. .
“I’m thrilled,” Ms. Wright said.