Jones, Scipio Africanus

Scipio Africanus Jones
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Scipio Africanus Jones (1863-1943) was an African-American attorney, judge, and Republican politician from the State of Arkansas. He was most famous for successfully guiding the appeals of the 12 men condemned to death after the Elaine Race Riots.

Scipio Africanus Jones was born a slave in approximately 1863 near Tulip in Dallas County, Arkansas.

Jones attended black schools near his hometown and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1880s and took preparatory courses at Philander Smith College. Jones went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Shorter College in 1887. Jones attempted to register at the University of Arkansas in 1887 to pursue his law degree but was not admitted.

Jones worked as a school teacher and read law in the offices of three white attorneys until he was accepted into the Arkansas bar in 1889. Jones became a prominent black Republican in Arkansas and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention several times. Jones was offered the position of Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia but declined the offer. Jones was also a prominent figure with the Mosaic Templars which was, at the time, one of the largest African-American fraternal organization and which which had its national headquarters in Little Rock.

In 1915 and 1924 Jones was appointed as a special judge to preside over cases when the regular judge had been incapacitated.

Jones is most famous for his skillfull defense of the 12 black sharecroppers sentenced to death for participation in the Elaine Race Riot in 1919. The 12 men had been sentenced to death by an all white jury in a trial that is said to have lasted approximately 20 minutes. Jones was hired after the men had already been convicted.

African-American attorneys were not generally permitted to argue cases and were instead assigned to assist white attorneys. Jones was assigned to assist George W. Murphy with the defense and did much of the research on the appeal. When Murphy died unexpectedly, Jones was elevated to co-counsel and took the lead in guiding the appeals process and successfully saw the case to the United States Supreme Court. During the trials Jones is said to have shifted his location each night to avoid those who wanted the 12 defendants convicted at any cost.

Jones was prohibited from arguing the case directly before the court but it was his efforts that led to a landmark Supreme Court (Dempsey v. Moore) ruling that, for the first time, permitted collateral attack, through habeus corpus, on a state appellate court decision.

New trials were granted to the 12 defendants as the court stated that they had not received due process in the original trials.

Charges were dismissed against six of the defendants and the remaining six were retried and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Jones successfully lobbied for a pardon from the Governor of Arkansas and the men were released in 1925.

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 amongst 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.

Jones last case was in 1942 when he and other black lawyers sued 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.

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