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Scipio Africanus Jones

Scipio Africanus Jones (3 August, 1863 - 2 March 1943) was an African-American educator, attorney, judge, philanthropist, and Republican politician from the state of Arkansas. He was most famous for successfully guiding the appeals of the twelve men condemned to death after the Elaine Race Riots of 1919.

Scipio Africanus Jones was born in Smith Township, near Tulip in Dallas County, Arkansas.

His mother, Jemmina Jones, was 15 years old when he was born. She was the former slave, and best friend, of 14-year-old Thresa Jones whose parents, Dr. Adolphus and Carolyn Jones, died when she was 9 years old. Scipio Jones' father was Dr. Sanford Reamey, Thresa's uncle.


Jones attended black schools near his hometown. In 1883 he moved to Little Rock at the age of 20 and took preparatory courses at Philander Smith College. Jones went on to earn a bachelor's degree from North Little Rock's Bethel University (now Shorter College) in 1885. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1905.

Jones worked as a school teacher in Big Rock District Two from 1885 until 1887. He was a tenant of James Lawson, a white man, who was a prominent member of a pioneer family of Little Rock.

One source Ovington (1927) claims Jones was denied admittance to the University of Arkansas School of Law due to his race. However, the current law school did not exist until 1924. A year after Jones passed the Arkansas Bar in 1889, an earlier law school was founded; it was closed by 1913. Jones offered to work for free as a janitor at the law offices of U.S. District Judge Henry C. Caldwell, Judge T.B. Martin, and Atty. S.A. Kilgore. While there, he began to read law books during his free time. He also became an apprentice-in-law and studied under Circuit Judge Robert J. Lea.

Political life

Jones became a prominent black Republican in Arkansas. He unsuccessfully ran for state representative in 1892, and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention several times. Jones was offered the positions of Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia and Ambassador to the Republic of Haiti, but declined both appointments to concentrate on local affairs.

Jones was deeply rooted in the struggle between the Lily Whites and the Black and Tans within the Republican Party. In 1902, Jones helped organize a slate of Negro Republicans to challenge the Lily Whites and Democrats in the Little Rock general election. The struggle reached a breaking point in 1920 when the Negroes took an unprecedented course of nominating a Negro candidate, J.H. Blount, for Governor. In that year, Jones was selected as the Black and Tan contender for the Arkansas Republican National Committee. Four years later, Jones, J. H. Blunt, N. R. Parker and J. Hibbler helped organize a Black and Tan protest meeting in Little Rock in which a list of demands for equal political treatment was presented to the Lily Whites. Eventually, a compromise was reached that guaranteed Negro representation on the State Republican Central Committee.

Business life

Jones was a successful and powerful businessman as well. He was the founder and owner of People's Ice & Fuel Company, which had the distinction of being both the only black-owned and black-operated ice manufacturing company and the only black-owned and black-operated fuel company in the U.S. He also founded the Arkansas Negro Business League, an affiliate of Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League (NNBL).

During the administration of Mayor Brickhouse, the Little Rock Clearing House, composed of representatives from the ten banks of Little Rock, had declined to make a loan to the City of Little Rock. When the mayor mentioned this fact to Jones, he asked the mayor how much money the city needed. The mayor replied they needed $75,000, and Jones said, "My clients have $120,000 on deposit in the banks of Little Rock and if the Clearing House will not let you have the money, my clients will." After hearing about the conversation, the Clearing House agreed to lend the city the $75,000.

Practice of law

Jones was accepted into the American Bar Association in 1889. Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to practice in the circuit court of Pulaski County (Little Rock), Arkansas. In 1900, he was admitted to the state Supreme Court, followed by the United States District Court (1901), the United States Supreme Court (1905), and the United State Court of Appeals (1914). He served as the first treasurer of the National Negro Bar Association when it was formed in Little Rock in 1910 as an auxiliary of the NNBL.

Jones was the National Attorney General of the Mosaic Templars of America. The Mosaic Templars, founded by John E. Bush and Chester W. Keatts, was, at the time, the one of the largest African-American fraternal organizations in the nation, and one of the largest black-owned business enterprises. The organization provided burial and life insurance to members; operated a building and loan association, a newspaper, a nursing school, and a hospital; and offered other social programs to the community. Its international headquarters were located in Little Rock.

Jones also served as the attorney, counselor, and legal adviser for several other African-American fraternal organizations, including the International Order of Twelve, Knights and Daughters of Tabor, which also had its headquarters in Arkansas, just a few blocks from the Mosaic Templars. He successfully defended the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias when the Arkansas Insurance Commission attempted to put them out of business. Because of his work with African-American fraternal organizations, he was called "the Gibraltar of Negro fraternal beneficiary societies."

In 1915, when Fred A. Isgrig was judge of the police court in Little Rock, he was disqualified in a case and City Attorney Harry C. Hale nominated Jones to act as judge. All the parties being Negroes and all the witnesses being Negroes and all the attorneys being Negroes, except Hale, he thought it proper to have a Negro judge preside at this particular trial. Jones was elected special judge. The election of a Negro to hold court so angered W. N. Lee, a white lawyer of Little Rock who was originally from Mississippi, that he engaged in a fisticuff with Hale for nominating Jones and declared he would not live in a state in which white people would elect a Negro. The trial was had about ten o’clock in the morning and Lee left the state about four o’clock that afternoon and never returned.

In 1924, Jones was also elected special chancellor in the Pulaski County Chancery Court.

Jones was the first lawyer in Arkansas to raise the question that Negro persons had not been permitted to serve on the grand and petit juries, although many were qualified. He contended that this was discrimination on account of race, color, and previous condition of servitude. Jones raised this question before it was raised in the Carter case of Texas, which was afterwards appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court held that it was a discrimination on account of race, color, and previous condition of servitude. Many cases were dismissed in Texas in which indictments had been made without Negro persons' being on the jury.

Following the Adair case in Georgia, many suits of injunction were brought in other states against the Negro Shriners, attempting to prohibit them from using the name and paraphernalia of Shriners. Jones represented the Negro Shriners in such a suit brought in Pulaski County, Arkansas, and Chancellor Judge John Martineau held in his favor. Jones also assisted in the trial of the case at Houston, Texas, against the Negro Shriners. The white Shrine Temple had sold its paraphernalia to the Negro Shrine Temple, and then enjoined the Negro Shriners from using the paraphernalia. This case was carried to the Supreme Court where it ruled that the Negroes had the right to use the paraphernalia on the ground of "estoppel".

The Elaine Twelve

Jones is most famous for his skillful defense of the Elaine 12, twelve black sharecroppers sentenced to death for participation in the Elaine Race Riot in 1919. The twelve men had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a series of trials that were said to have lasted approximately 20 minutes.

The plight of the Elaine 12, and 87 other black men who were convicted to prison terms for participation in the riot, quickly made international headlines. Three organizations offered assistance: the Arkansas Conference on Negro Organizations (ACNO), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Equal Rights League (NERL). The ACNO and NERL joined together to hire Jones as the defense attorney for all 99 of the convicted men. The NAACP hired former state attorney general George W. Murphy as the defense attorney for only the Elaine 12. The two attorneys were friends and decided to work together.

When Murphy died unexpectedly, Jones took the lead in guiding the appeals process. After much internal debate, the NAACP temporarily retained Jones as their replacement for Murphy, making him briefly the sole attorney for all of the 99 defendants. He successfully saw the Elaine 12 case to the Supreme Court of the United States and is credited with having been the author of the brief used before the Court.

When it was time to argue the Elaine 12 case before the Supreme Court, the NAACP decided to replace Jones with Moorfield Storey and former assistant U.S. attorney Ulyssess S. Bratton. It was Jones' efforts that led to the landmark Supreme Court Moore v. Dempsey ruling that, for the first time, permitted collateral attack through habeas corpus on a state appellate court decision.

During the trials, Jones received frequent lynching threats and was said to have shifted his location each night to avoid those who wanted the Elaine 12 defendants convicted at any cost.

New trials were granted to the twelve defendants as the court stated that they had not received due process in the original trials.

Charges were quickly dismissed against six of the defendants. The remaining six were retried, convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones successfully lobbied Arkansas Governor Thomas McRae, who had earlier refused to release the defendants, to let men out on indefinite furloughs in 1925 just hours before Governor-Elect Thomas Terral assumed office.

This was important because Terral was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). During a speech before one of the largest KKK rallies in Arkansas history the night before his inauguration, Terral vowed to execute the remaining Elaine 12 defendants as his first official duty in office.

Before leaving office, Governor McRae also pardoned the other 87 Elaine defendants.

Later in Life

Jones remained active in Republican politics and continued to press cases dealing with racial discrimination in Arkansas until his death. During World War I, Jones led the Liberty Bond recruitment drive among the African-American community in Arkansas and raised $243,000 in the effort. Jones also served as the head of the Negro State Suffrage League and fought for voting rights for black citizens throughout his life. Jones also served as director of the United Charities drive, which was a predecessor of the United Way of America.

Jones's last case was in 1942 when he teamed up with Thurgood Marshall to sue the Little Rock School District to obtain equal pay for a black school teacher. Though Jones died before the completion of the case, it proved to be successful.

Scipio Jones died in Little Rock, Arkansas on 2 March 1943 and was buried at Haven of Rest Cemetery.

External links

Further reading

  • Cortner, Richard, A Mob Intent On Death, ISBN 0-8195-5161-9
  • Dillard, Tom W., “Scipio A. Jones,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 31 (Autumn 1972): 201-219
  • Stockley, Grif, Blood in their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001.
  • Stockley, Grif, “ Elaine Massacre,” in Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture
  • Stockley, Grif and Jeannie M. Whayne, “Federal Troops and the Elaine Massacres: A Colloquy,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 61 (Autumn 2002): 272-283
  • Whayne, Jeannie M., “Low Villains in Wickedness in High Places: Race and Class in the Elaine Riots,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Autumn 1999): 285-313
  • Woodruff, Nan Elizabeth, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2003
  • Carmichael, J. H. “The Story of a Little Negro Boy,” in Coke, Octavius, editor-in-chief. The Scrapbook of Arkansas Literature, an Anthology for the General Reader. American Caxton Society Press, 1939: 312-314.
  • Whitaker, Robert. On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation. New York: Random House, Inc., 2008. ISBN 978-0-307-33982-9 (0-307-33982-3)

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