A Retired Prosecutor’s Quest for Recognition
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — What is the weight of history?
For Stephanie Wright, it’s as slight as the thinnest of books, a 259-page volume that has upended her life for months and set her on an unusual and determined quest for recognition. She appealed to the Justice Department and some of the highest-ranking officials and judges in the federal court system in the Midwest.
None of it had anything to do with what was in the book. It’s what was left out that bothered her — her name.
Ms. Wright was a federal prosecutor in Iowa who made history in her own way. She was an assistant United States attorney in the Northern District of Iowa, the first African American prosecutor in the office. For 24 years, from 1994 until she retired in 2018, she was the only Black prosecutor in the federal district, which spans the largely rural northern half of the state.
Last year, flipping 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 U.S. attorneys who had worked in the prosecutor’s office over more than a century. To her shock and dismay, her 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, fired off an email pointing out the omission.
Within minutes, she received an apology from C.J. Williams, a federal judge and historical society member, who called the omission “clearly inadvertent.” Ms. Wright’s name was the only one left off the list of assistant U.S. attorneys that had surfaced so far.
“Our focus was on the content of the book, not the appendices,” Judge Williams wrote in an email. He added that he could not take a call from Ms. Wright at that moment “because I’m on the bench in a jury trial.”
In a state of agitation, Ms. Wright sent another email to the history society to convey “shock and disappointment” and to demand action. She asked that an online version of the book be updated, that two corrected hard-bound copies be printed for her at no cost and that notices run in Iowa newspapers that the book had been fixed.
The omission, Ms. Wright wrote, “erased my name from history.”
The online version of the book was corrected, but Ms. Wright was told it was “cost prohibitive” to print a new hardback version. No notice would be forthcoming in newspapers.
She was not assuaged.
“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 in a restaurant in Cedar Rapids, where the Northern District is based and where, for all of Black History Month in February, she had paid $4,000 for a billboard at the top of a downtown building. It featured a picture of her in a white dress with arms crossed, and the message: “Stephanie Johnson Wright, First African American Assistant U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Iowa (1994-2018).”
She said the billboard was part of her response to being left out of the history book. “I’m not going to be one of those people who is hidden,’’ she said.
Ms. Wright said one of her two adult daughters had asked her why she was determined to correct one 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’s shelved in only a handful of libraries in the Midwest that are not open to the public.
“You saw the movie ‘Hidden Figures’?” she said, referring to the Oscar-nominated film about three Black female mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s. “I didn’t even know those 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 they wouldn’t speak up. But by doing that, you are preventing someone else who can be encouraged and inspired.”
Ms. Wright, 71, was raised in the Ville district of St. Louis, a historical Black neighborhood, by a single mother. Her father was incarcerated for part of her childhood. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Minnesota.
“I was the only Black girl in my class at boarding school, which was actually great for me because I always felt comfortable around white people,” she said. “I was never intimidated.”
After graduating from the University of Missouri, she worked for John Deere in Iowa before attending Northwestern School of Law in Portland, Ore., entering at age 38. She was hired by the U.S. attorney in Cedar Rapids on a recommendation from a civil rights activist Ms. Wright had worked with.
As a prosecutor, she won a guilty plea in the 1997 case of a cross-burning outside the home of an interracial couple. She later specialized in cracking down on businesses that ran afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In May 2022, Ms. Wright sent a four-page letter to the Justice Department, which oversees U.S. attorney offices.
She wrote that she did not believe her omission from the history book was an accident. She claimed “intentional discrimination” against her as a Black woman, which she said was part of a pattern that began when she was an assistant U.S. attorney.
In the letter, she cited being passed over for a job 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 age discrimination after being fired. (The case involved messy internal politics and featured the rarity of a federal judge, Stephanie Rose, taking the stand. The former prosecutor who had sued lost her case.)
Ms. Wright wrote to the Justice Department that she had been discouraged by a private lawyer from filing a discrimination complaint of her own because it could lead to termination.
Timothy Duax, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, whose tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney in the office overlapped with Ms. Wright’s, declined to address her particular claims. But in a statement, Mr. Duax said that his office “does not tolerate illegal discrimination or harassment in any form, nor does it engage in illegal retaliation against employees that file such complaints.”
Richard Murphy, a retired prosecutor in the Cedar Rapids office and a former treasurer of the historical society, said that it was he who compiled the list in question for Appendix A, and that Ms. Wright’s omission had been an honest mistake, not a slight or any sort of retaliation.
He said he had relied for the appendix on a spreadsheet kept by a person who worked in the prosecutor’s office. “Stephanie’s name was not added to the list of people who left the office for whatever reasons,” Mr. Murphy said. “To the extent there’s blame to be had, put it on me. I relied upon something that was inaccurate.”
He strongly objected to Ms. Wright’s claim that the omission was willful discrimination. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I feel bad she apparently feels a need to claim it was done for ethnic reasons, which is wrong.”
In an unsigned reply to Ms. Wright’s May 2022 letter to the Justice Department, the general counsel for the Executive Office for United States Attorneys wrote that there was no basis to suggest the omission was anything but inadvertent.
The general counsel added that if Ms. Wright wished to pursue claims of “misconduct” in the Iowa prosecutor’s offices, she should contact the Justice Department Inspector General.
She did not do that. Instead, she found resolution from another source, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which reviews cases from the Northern District of Iowa.
The judge, Jane Kelly, working with a librarian for the Eighth Circuit, Eric Brust, arranged in October for three corrected pages in Appendix A to be printed with adhesive backing. They would be distributed to libraries holding copies of the history book, to be pasted over the inaccurate list of assistant U.S. attorneys.
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Wright paid a visit to the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, a glass-fronted, bow-shaped building, to see if the new pages were pasted in. Ms. Wright now lives with her husband, Charles, a retired supervisor for the Postal Service, in Virginia Beach, Va. She and her husband had earlier 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, removed the book — a decidedly modest tome for all the angst it had caused — from a shelf of dictionaries and other references. At a table with a red cutout heart and felt flowers — Valentine’s Day had just passed — Ms. Wright opened the hard cover with its gold title. She skipped past chapters on judges, prominent cases tried in the district and courthouses, until she arrived at Appendix A. Its 41 pages listed court personnel over the decades.
The three new pages enumerating the assistant U.S. attorneys were neatly pasted in. For a moment, Ms. Wright wondered aloud if they might have been added expressly for her visit, after she had called for an appointment. But she noticed that the edges of the pages were slightly worn, suggesting they’d been there for more than a few days, compressed by the weight of history, in a place few visit now that most legal research is done online.
“I am pleased,” Ms. Wright said.
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