Juanita Kidd Stout (1919-1998) aspired to be a lawyer when few African Americans and few women were in the profession. When Stout was elected judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she became the first African American woman to be elected to the bench. Almost 30 years later, Judge Stout became the first African American woman to serve on a state supreme court, when she was sworn in as an associate justice in Pennsylvania.
Juanita Kidd Stout
Stout was born Juanita Kidd on March 7, 1919, in Wewoka, Oklahoma, the only child of two schoolteachers, Henry and Mary (Chandler) Kidd. From an early age, the value of an education and the importance of achievement were instilled in the little girl. She could read by the time she was three, and when she began school at the age of six, she started school in the third grade. She also began to study piano at the age of five.
Stout was a top student in both grade school and high school. However after graduating high school at the age of 16, she had to leave Oklahoma to find an accredited college that would admit an African American woman. She moved to Missouri and for two years attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City. She later transferred to the University of Iowa where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in music in 1939.
Became a Teacher
At only the age of 20, Stout began her teaching career in Seminole, Oklahoma. She taught grade school and also taught music at the Booker T. Washington High School. She remained in Seminole for two years. Her next teaching assignment was near Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the town of Sand Springs. It was there that she met her future husband, Charles Otis Stout, who was also a teacher and the boys' counselor.
As the daughter of two teachers, Stout believed that in order for learning to occur, there had to be rules and discipline; the students needed to know she was in charge. However, many of Stout's students were bigger than she was, and she sometimes had problems. She started to send her "problem" students to her future husband, and soon, the problem students were few.
Over time, the relationship between the two teachers grew. They spent a lot of their spare time together. However, after a year of teaching together, World War II broke out. Charles Stout went into the Army, and Juanita Stout decided to go to Washington, D.C. with another teacher.
Settled in Washington, D.C.
The two young women found Washington, D.C. more exciting than Oklahoma, and they decided to stay there and find jobs. Stout found employment as a secretary. However, she soon observed that others were given opportunities that she was not. She quit her job, but a promising job lead quickly followed. She learned that the prominent law firm of Houston, Houston, and Hastie was seeking an additional secretary. Since Stout was excellent in typing and shorthand and had a genuine interest in the law, she was hired. She worked directly with Charles Hamilton Houston.
Marriage and Law School
When Juanita Stout and Charles Stout left Sand Springs and went their separate ways, there was no discussion about the future or marriage. However, her future husband tracked her down through their former high school principal. On his first leave from the Army, he went to Washington, D.C. to renew the relationship. The couple married on June 23, 1942. They had no children.
In many interviews Stout gave throughout her life, she reflected that she had wanted to be a lawyer from an early age. Although Stout had "never even seen a woman lawyer, never mind a black woman lawyer," she stated in a 1990 telephone interview with Emery Wimbish, Jr., "it was my dream." In an interview with Ebony, Stout recalled that her husband's response to her dream of becoming a lawyer was "selfless and swift." He used his Army GI educational funds to put her through law school.
Although Stout began her legal studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she soon transferred to Indiana University, where her husband was working on his doctorate degree. She earned her law degree from Indiana in 1948 and a graduate law degree in 1954. In 1966, her alma mater presented her with an honorary graduate law degree.
Began Law Career
Stout returned to Washington, D.C., and it was here that her law career truly began. According to Contemporary Black Biography, Stout took a job as secretary to William Hastie, a prominent African American lawyer, in 1950. Hastie was soon appointed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. He was first African American appellate court judge in U.S. history. Hastie asked Stout to accompany him to Philadelphia, and there she continued to serve as his administrative secretary.
In 1954, Stout passed the Pennsylvania bar exam and began a private law practice. Two years later, she accepted a position as assistant district attorney for the city of Philadelphia. A few years later, Stout was promoted to chief of appeals, pardons, and paroles division of the district attorney's office, but still maintained her private practice.
In September of 1959, Pennsylvania Governor David L. Lawrence appointed Stout to fill a vacancy on the municipal court, making her the first African American woman to sit on the bench in Philadelphia. Two months later, she was elected to a ten-year term, beating her opponent by a two-to-one margin. Stout had made history, becoming the first elected African American female judge in the United States. She would serve a ten-year term on the municipal court and was then elected to two ten-year terms on the court of common pleas.
"Tell It to the Judge"
Stout quickly developed a reputation as a tough but fair judge. "She was a strong proponent of education," a colleague shared with writer Sufiya Abdur-Rahman of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "She was outspoken against gang violence, deadbeat dads, the exclusion of blacks from juries—and bad grammar." Attorney John F. Street (who was elected mayor of Philadelphia in 1999), added, "I tried cases in her courtroom, and she was a very, very stern taskmaster. You left that courtroom a better lawyer, a better person, and a better citizen."
During the mid-1960s, Stout received national attention for her tough sentencing of juvenile offenders and gang members. She was featured in a 1965 issue of Life magazine, in an article entitled "Her Honor Bops the Hoodlums." That same year, the National Association of Women Lawyers named Stout the outstanding woman lawyer of the year. The Philadelphia Bar Association noted that she "was a mentor for younger attorneys and an example for all lawyers." However, not everyone was a fan of the judge. She received death threats from gang members and was criticized by some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
However, the judge knew she was making a difference. In a 1989 interview with Ebony magazine, she recalled passing down an 18-month sentence on a young gang member in the 1970s. "He was the best little gang leader in Philadelphia," Stout recalled. "He was bright but had gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd."
Three years later, the young man came to her office, to thank her for being tough on him. The young man told her, "The day you sentenced me, I said if I ever got out, I would make something of myself." The young man went on to graduate from college and law school, "and the next time he appeared in Stout's courtroom, it was as her law clerk." The young man eventually established a successful law practice in Philadelphia.
Contemporary Black Biography recounted a similar story about Judge Stout. One day, a woman Stout did not know stopped her on the street. The woman explained that she had been inspired to switch careers after serving on a jury in Stout's courtroom. The woman shared that had returned to college, finished law school, and passed the bar exam.
Many believe that Stout's success is due to her genuine love of the law. She once shared with the Philadelphia Tribune, "I cannot understand how a person can work eight hours a day or more at a job that they do not like. I love my job. I just love the law. I enjoy it." When she received the Henry G. Bennett Distinguished Service Award in 1980, she was described as a "tireless and relentless public servant … a champion of justice."
Appointed to State Supreme Court
In January of 1988, Stout made history a second time. Governor Robert P. Casey appointed her to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. When she was sworn in as an associate justice, she became the first African American woman to serve on a state supreme court. That same year, the National Association of Women Judges named Stout the justice of the year. Despite these professional accomplishments, Stout also experienced a personal loss. Her husband passed away in August of that year.
With her achievements, Stout was quick to recall those her influenced her along the way. In Notable Black American Women, Stout remembered her parents, "who taught her the value of education and moral living," and acknowledged "the unswerving support of her husband." Perhaps they inspired Stout's famous quote: "A person educated in mind and not in morals is a menace to society."
A Lifetime of Honors
In 1989, Justice Stout reached the state supreme court's mandatory retirement age of 70 and was forced to step down. She returned to the court of common pleas as a senior judge in the homicide division. She served on this court until her death.
During her career Stout was active in many professional and service organizations and received many honors. Her memberships included the American Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Philadelphia Bar Association, the National Association of Women Lawyers, and the American Judges Association. She also served on the boards of Rockford College, Saint Augustine's College, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first medical school that was established for women. Her abilities and contributions have been recognized by eleven colleges and universities, which have awarded her honorary degrees.
In 1981, a very special event occurred. Her home state of Oklahoma, the place she was forced to leave in order to get her college education, inducted her into its Hall of Fame. Two years later, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame. In 1988, Stout received the Gimbel Award for Humanitarian Services by the Medical College of Pennsylvania and was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania by the governor.
Her alma maters also remembered her. The University of Iowa named her a distinguished alumnus in June of 1974, and in 1992 Indiana University presented her with the Distinguished Alumni Service Award.
On August 21, 1998, Stout died of leukemia in Philadelphia. Although she had not heard cases for several months, she had planned to be back on the bench in the fall. Posthumous honors followed. In December of 1998, Stout received the Oklahoma Human Rights Award, and in 2002, as it celebrated its 200th year, the Philadelphia Bar Association named Stout as a "legend of the law."
Shortly after her death, writer John Shelley reflected on the impact Stout made during her career. He wrote, "We'll miss this lady… . Particularly the swift and sure justice she handed out to criminals, regardless of race… . The nation could use thousands more like her."
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