A childhood visit to the Deep South helped propel Sharon Zealey into a life spent fighting inequality
Published in 2006 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 20, 2005
Updated on May 27, 2020
Though she was born in St. Paul, Minn., Sharon Zealey grew up in Nashville, Tenn., during the 1960s and 1970s — when segregation and racism were openly tolerated and practiced throughout much of the South.
“Nashville was not as bad as other parts of the South,” at least not as overtly, she says. But when she visited family in Mississippi, the stark contrast opened her eyes to a more obvious form of discrimination. Everywhere they went — public swimming pools, parks, restaurants, shops — they were forced to use entrances and areas labeled “colored only.” At age 11 or 12, “I didn’t understand how this could be. It was very hurtful to a child.”
In the decades that followed, legendary civil rights advocates made headway into relieving that hurt. Having successfully challenged hate crimes, racial discrimination and legally entrenched bias against gays and lesbians, Sharon Zealey, age 46, has become one of those advocates for change.
Because her mother died when Zealey was only 3, she and her three siblings were mostly raised by their father, a biochemistry professor and Ph.D. (“poor, hungry doctor,” she jokes). As a child, she was an avid news watcher, just like her dad. In the early ’70s, she used to rush home from school so they could watch the Watergate hearings together.
If only school was always as fun as Watergate. At a football game, Zealey, her high school’s only black cheerleader, was heckled by students from a rival school. They taunted her by calling her “nigger.” Another cheerleader tried to switch places with her to save her from some of the abuse but Zealey stood her ground. “I stayed and cheered and they stayed and heckled and this went on for what seemed like an eternity,” says Zealey. “After the game I realized that my letter jacket had been burned by a cigarette.”
Outside her family’s house, the neighborhood declined as she went through school. The nearby park gradually became a narcotics bazaar. “By the time I reached high school, it had deteriorated to the point where three different people in a half hour asked me to use or buy drugs,” she says.
But Zealey was focused and became attracted to a career in law as an undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana, where she studied business administration and graduated with honors in 1981.
“My role models had been mostly lawyers,” she says, including the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “It was clear to me that most of the big advances in civil rights had been made by lawyers — the really concrete examples.” Zealey also took note of attorney and congresswoman Barbara Jordan, as well as Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to U.S. Congress. “Everything I admire about the law is that it’s changed. It’s all about stretching the law, pushing the law, making it fit,” Zealey says.
After graduating from Xavier, Zealey headed north to the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 1981. Fresh out of college, she was one of only four black women in her law school class. One of the other women, Eileen Cooper Reed, a 34-year-old mother pursuing her own law career, befriended Zealey.
“I remember Sharon was very athletic and competitive — in a healthy way,” says Reed, who went on to practice law in the Sixth Circuit Court and eventually serve as director of Cincinnati’s Children’s Defense Fund. “She was smart, energetic … very focused, and she just shot up the ladder.”
Zealey’s first taste of civil rights law came in the late 1980s when she was a young associate in the litigation department at Manley Burke Fischer in Cincinnati. She represented a group called HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal), a Cincinnati nonprofit that works to eliminate illegal discrimination in housing. The case centered on the owners of a luxury apartment building who allegedly rejected prospective renters based on race. Proudly, Zealey says the case resulted in “the largest settlement of its kind” in the Midwest at the time. The amount was confidential but the building was forced to open its doors to minority renters.
In 1991, Zealey moved into public service as deputy attorney general for the Ohio Attorney General’s office. She fulfilled a decade-long dream by becoming an assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of Ohio in 1995. She had clerked for that office in 1982 and had always hoped to return after law school. Zealey worked in the criminal division, handling such high-profile cases as a counterfeiter who produced more than $76,000 in fake bills. Just two years later, President Bill Clinton appointed her as the first African American and the first woman to serve as the district’s chief federal prosecutor and law enforcement officer — the position of U.S. Attorney, a role she served in until April 2001. While U.S. Attorney, Zealey made civil rights a priority in Southern Ohio, a district that encompasses Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.
Sal Dominguez served as Zealey’s first assistant U.S. Attorney from 1997 to 2001. “She brought a lot of experience to the office,” he says. “She knew the function of it, and was a dedicated public servant.”
In one of her early cases as U.S. Attorney, a young black man was beaten near Miami University in Oxford in 1997 on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “We worked with local officials to find out how to best prosecute — whatever could get a stiffer sentence,” she says, which turned out to be six years in prison for both assailants.
Another case involved a cross burning in front of the home of a white woman who was dating a black man in Newtonsville, Ohio. Two white men who knew the victim were suspected of burning the cross. “Like any cross burning, they were sending her a message. [Soon after the incident] they bragged about doing it” and were caught, Zealey says. She was able to get a hate crime conviction and a two-year prison sentence for both men.
Of course, as U.S. Attorney, she handled more than just civil rights. Zealey’s office took on such varied cases as a drug trafficking ring that smuggled cocaine into the U.S. inside of sneakers, kickbackaccepting officials at the defunct North Ohio Valley Air Authority and Buckeye Egg Farm for selling broken eggs.
When she finished her service as U.S. Attorney, Zealey moved back into private practice as a partner in the commercial litigation division of Blank Rome in Cincinnati. But she wasn’t done making headlines.
She was in the papers again in 2002, defending her friend, police Lt. Col. Ron Twitty. Twitty, Cincinnati’s highestranking African-American police officer, was accused of covering up how his cityowned vehicle was damaged. According to Zealey, Twitty went out to his car to drive to an early-morning golf game and discovered the front bumper was damaged. He called the police to report the damage, and “within hours, it turned into an accusation that he wrecked the car.” Since Twitty had been on the force for more than 25 years, “why would he jeopardize his pension over a fender-bender?” she asked. Eventually, Zealey was able to settle the case to her friend’s satisfaction, in which he pleaded no contest to a minor misdemeanor. “It was a successful outcome given he was facing a 10-year felony,” she says.
Richard Rust IV, chief legal counsel for the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, worked with her defending a complicated two-year case that involved the proposed demolition of a public housing development in Cincinnati. “There was a complex, long learning curve, including hundreds of pages of regulations, but Sharon invested the time and learned it.” Before and during the eight days of the case’s trial, she worked day and night on the case. “That’s two and a half weeks when you tell the rest of the world, ‘See you later.’ She’s got the stamina to do that,” Rust says.
One of her biggest civil rights accomplishments as a private citizen was also one of Ohio’s biggest surprises during the 2004 election. While the media reported on Ohio’s shift toward the far right, Cincinnati voters overturned an article in the city charter forbidding local laws that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Zealey was an integral member of a group called Citizens to Restore Fairness, which led the campaign to repeal the charter amendment.
“Cincinnati was the only city in the country that forbade [its] city council from enacting legal protection for people discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation,” she says. The amendment as approved by the city council in 1993 as a “backlash” to a new human rights ordinance, which banned discrimination against a person based on sexual orientation in matters of employment, housing or public accommodation.
It took more than a decade to build up enough support and momentum to overturn the amendment. Volunteers from Citizens to Restore Fairness went door to door for months, explaining the ordinance and asking if citizens thought such discrimination was wrong. “And people said ‘yes,’” Zealey says. By November, the group had garnered plenty of support for their initiative, and the amendment was approved in a “decisive win,” she says, though “it was closer than I would’ve liked.”
Zealey hopes to see a human rights ordinance in 2006 that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing and employment.
In that same 2004 election, though, Ohio voters also decisively approved an amendment to the state constitution to limit the legal definition of “marriage” as a union between a man and a woman. “Only Nebraska and Ohio prohibit any legal right that approximates a marriage,” she says. The amendment’s passage hit home for Zealey. She and her female partner are raising their 1-year-old son, and “because of that law, the courts don’t have to recognize” the relationship. “We’ve got to get that law changed too.” Judging from her past performance, it’s only a matter of time before she makes it happen.