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History Minute: Scipio Jones

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

Scipio Africanus Jones
was a leader in the civil
rights community in Arkansas
in the late 1800s and
early 1900s. His work as an
attorney not only saved innocent
men from being executed
but won important
legal gains for minorities in
the state.
Jones was born in Dallas
County in the southern
reaches of the state during
the Civil War. However, his
birth date is uncertain and
generally believed by biographers
to be either 1863 or
1864. His mother had been
a slave while his father, a
prominent white physician
in the area, owned his
mother.
Jones was an energetic
student and attended the
segregated schools in the
area as a child. In his teen
years, he moved to Little
Rock where he undertook
the college preparatory
courses at Philander Smith
College and then earned a
bachelors degree at Bethel
Institute in North Little
Rock in 1885.
He had developed a passion
for the law and wanted
to become a lawyer. However,
no law schools existed in
Arkansas at that time, much
less for African-Americans.
As was the custom for many
aspiring lawyers at the time,
Jones apprenticed himself
to several Little Rock attorneys
– all white in an era of
racial hostility — who let him
read their law books and
learn about law practices.
While Jones studied to become
a lawyer, he made
ends meet by working as
a school teacher. By 1889,
he was admitted to the bar
and began practicing law
on his own.
He was outspoken on
civil rights issues. He and
other black lawyers in Arkansas
organized to stop
the state legislature from
passing segregationist laws.
Jones also trained several
other African-American lawyers
in the state during his
career. In 1909, he became
a founding member and
treasurer of the National
Negro Bar Association.
His civil rights work in
the courts was extensive.
On at least five occasions,
he had criminal convictions
of African-Americans overturned
on the grounds that
the juries were all-white.
In 1905, he won a case on
behalf of convicts who were
leased to a planter who
later abused them. The
results of the case led to
changes in the convictlease
system before it was
later abolished altogether.
In 1919, he represented
dozens of African-Americans
accused of murder
during the bloody Elaine
Race Riots. The exact death
toll in the Elaine Riots is unknown.
Some scholars estimate
that as many as 200
blacks died at the hands of
white mobs. None of them
were convicted or even
indicted. Five whites died,
and twelve blacks were convicted
in their deaths with
almost no evidence presented
against them. They
were sentenced to death,
but Jones argued that the
trial was unfair. Through
Jones’s efforts, all convictions
were overturned by
1925.
He won great respect
for his work. In 1915 and
1924, he served as a special
judge for a number of
cases in Little Rock. He
is believed to be among
the first African-Americans
in Arkansas to serve as a
judge. In 1928, North Little
Rock named its segregated
high school after Jones in
honor of his work.
He continued fighting
for civil rights to the end.
In 1941, he fought for the
admission of a black student
into the University of
Arkansas graduate school.
However, he was unable to
gain admission but was able
to get the state to finance
the student’s education
elsewhere. In early 1943, he
spearheaded a lawsuit by
African-American teachers
in Little Rock demanding
equal pay with white teachers.
Scipio Jones died in
Little Rock in March 1943,
just before the courts ruled
in favor of the teachers.