BATON ROUGE – The life of Jesse N. Stone Jr. is chock-full of “firsts” – member of the first graduating class of the Southern University Law Center, the first African-American attorney to set up shop in Shreveport in 1950, the first graduate of Southern University Law to eventually serve as dean, the first African-American assistant state superintendent of education in Louisiana and the first African-American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Earlier this year, during Black History Month, a portrait of the attorney, professor and civil rights advocate was dedicated at the Southern University at Shreveport Museum of Art. The portrait was a gift from several of Stone’s close friends as a way to honor their mentor, and it is now part of the center’s Wall of Fame, which was created in 2010.
“It’s a good story because of the grit factor,” Winston Riddick, a Southern University professor for more than 40 years, told the Louisiana Record. “He was a man of true grit. He fought hard to establish himself.”
According to an article in Jet magazine in June 2001 following Stone’s death at age 76, the attorney and educator was born in Gibsland, Louisiana and his tenure in state government included being the associate director of the Commission on Human Relations, Rights and Responsibilities.
“I first met him in February 1966, when he and I started working in state government together,” Riddick, who was one of the presenters of the judicial portrait that now hangs at Southern University, said. “We worked in education, law and politics, and we became business partners.”
Both Stone and Riddick served in the mid-1960s as assistants to the staff of then-Gov. John J. McKeithen. Stone began his legal career as a criminal defense attorney defending poor black residents, Riddick said, but became instrumental in civil rights issues and the desegregation of Caddo Parish public schools. He did this while representing the Louisiana Association of Educators, often working for free.
Riddick said both of Stone’s parents were teachers who helped instill in him the value of education. A previous president of Southern University, Felton Clark, hired Stone as a driver while he was a law student, helping Stone defray the costs of a college education, he said.
“He really felt that being a lawyer was his calling,” Riddick said.
Stone became dean of his alma mater in 1971 prior to serving on the state Supreme Court from 1972 to 1974. Stone then returned to Southern University to become the system’s fourth president. Later he taught law at the center before retiring in 1986.
“He inspired thousands of African-Americans to the legal profession,” Riddick said. Indeed, Stone told generations of African-American students how the law could open doors for them, both socially and economically, Riddick said. And Stone helped many law students to begin careers in government. Many African-American judges now serving in the state got their start at Southern University; and Stone’s daughter, Shonda Deann Stone, is now a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal.
In addition to Riddick, those who presented the portrait to the university were Chancellor Emeritus B.K. Agnihotri and Vice Chancellor Russell L. Jones. A Southern University scholarship in Stone’s honor is also being established.