Thursday, January 6, 2022

Scipio Africanus Jones, 1863/4-1943

[As I mentioned yesterday, the second of the two essays in my exam in my legal history course is biographical.  This year's follows; for earlier exams' essays, start here.]

Scipio A. Jones (wiki)

Scipio Africanus Jones (1863/4-1943), named after a Roman general who won great battles in North Africa, was born in Arkansas to Jemima Jones, a nineteen-year-old enslaved woman, in either 1863 or 1864, but, in any event, while the doctor possessing her as guardian for an under-aged owner fled advancing Union forces during the Civil War.  Light-skinned-he was the only member of his household listed as mulatto in the 1880 census-Jones was thought to be the doctor’s son, who was said to have paid for Jones’s education.  He grew up in rural Arkansas, where he worked on farms, attended all-Black schools, and was the only member of his household listed as literate in the 1870 census.  In his late teens, he moved to Little Rock, the state capital and Arkansas’s largest city, where he attended a Blacks-only preparatory academy and college while living in the home of a White man and working on the man’s nearby farm.  From 1885 until at least 1887, he taught school while readying himself for a legal career.  He applied to the University of Arkansas’s law school, which had never admitted a Black student, but was rejected--as was his offer to serve as the law school’s janitor if he could attend lectures.  Instead, Jones studied in the law offices of three prominent White lawyers in Little Rock, one a federal judge.  

In June 1889, after being examined by a committee of eminent lawyers, he was admitted to practice in the courts of the county in which Little Rock is located.  Forty years later, in an address to the National Bar Association, he hinted that when he started out the Black bar left much to be desired. In those days, he explained, the “greatest endowment of the budding lawyer was the gift of speech and resounding rhetoric,” not “quiet, persistent, patient and laborious research into the mysteries and principles of the law.”  Further, Black lawyers “had not become thoroughly imbued” with the ideal that their own interests should “fade into insignificance” next to those of their clients.  

When Jones entered the legal profession, Republicans, relying on Black voters, who made up 37 percent of the state electorate, still contested Democrats for elective office.  After Democrats won the governorship and control of the statehouse in 1890, however, a series of laws disenfranchised many of the state’s Blacks.  The state Republican Party divided into a “Lily White” faction that excluded African Americans, and a “Black and Tan” faction that continued the biracialism of the Reconstruction era.  As a leader of the Black and Tans, Jones helped send an alternate, biracial slate from Little Rock to the Republican state convention in 1900, served as an Arkansas delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912, helped organize rival state Republican conventions in 1914 and 1916, and, in 1920, led Black Republicans into a Whites-only hotel where the Lily Whites were convening. In 1924, a compromise between the two factions was reached, under which Jones represented Arkansas in Republican National Conventions in 1928 and 1940.

Jones’s first professional association was the National Negro Business League (NNBL), founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington, who served as its president.  From the start, lawyers were members, if only because so many were also real estate brokers and bankers.  In Little Rock in 1909, Jones helped found, as an auxiliary of the NNBL, the National Negro Bar Association (NNBA) and became its first treasurer.  Many of the South’s Black lawyers joined the NNBA, but northern Black lawyers did not, because of the group’s association with Booker T. Washington. (They would establish their own “National Bar Association” in 1924.)

In 1891 Jones and another lawyer unsuccessfully opposed legislation segregating railroad cars in the state.  In 1901 he won reversals from the Arkansas Supreme Court of two criminal convictions on the ground that he should have been allowed to prove that Blacks had been excluded from the state’s juries.  (On remand, neither challenge succeeded.)  And in 1905 he successfully fought to change a law that unfairly extended the time convicts needed to work off their fines.

At first, Jones’s law practice consisted overwhelmingly of domestic relations and criminal defense, including the court-appointed representation of the indigent.  Over the course of his career, eleven of his criminal cases went to the Arkansas Supreme Court.  But Jones soon acquired a substantial practice representing a variety of Black fraternal organizations when members sued to collect on their life insurance policies.  His biggest client was the Mosaic Templars of America, headquartered in Little Rock, whose membership ultimately numbered 80,000 and for whom he became “national attorney general” around 1895. By 1928, an African American newspaper would call him “the mainstay of Negro business in Arkansas.”   

White lawyers respected his ability as well as his tact, as well as his quiet, unostentatious, and reserved manner.  “In his appearances in court,” a White lawyer observe late in Jones’s career, “he always conducted himself in such a way as not to offend the sensibilities of the white jurors, the white judges, and the white attorneys appearing in the cases.”  In 1915, the White city attorney nominated Jones to serve as “special judge” in a single case in the Little Rock Municipal Court when the presiding judge (a Caucasian) recused himself.  The case involved a melee in a Black neighborhood, in which the accused, the witnesses and the defense counsel all were Black. The other White lawyers in attendance approved the choice of Jones, believing, as the recused judge put it, “that for the trial of this particular case, a complaint among negroes, Jones was peculiarly fitted by environment as well as marked ability as a lawyer, and in recognition of his reputation and standing in the community and in the bar of Little Rock.”  Still, the choice of a Black lawyer to preside in even a single case so outraged a White lawyer, recently arrived from Mississippi, that he “engaged in a ‘fisticuff’” with the city attorney and left Arkansas rather than “reside in a state that had Negro judges.”

White supremacy survived Jones’s brief judgeship.  Between 1891 and 1919, 167 people were lynched in the state, and worse acts of racial violence were yet to come.  In 1919, an attempt to create a cooperative, Black-owned alternative to sharecropping was crushed in a horrendous massacre by private vigilantes and state troops in and near the small Arkansas town of Elaine, where Blacks outnumbered Whites 4 to 1.  Somewhere between 100 and 237 Blacks died; five Whites died as well. Just weeks after the massacre, twelve Black men were tried for murder.  As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court, the men

were brought into Court, informed that a certain lawyer was appointed their counsel, and were placed on trial before a white jury -- blacks being systematically excluded from both grand and petit juries. The Court and neighborhood were thronged with an adverse crowd that threatened the most dangerous consequences to anyone interfering with the desired result. The counsel did not venture to demand delay or a change of venue, to challenge a juryman or to ask for separate trials. He had had no preliminary consultation with the accused, called no witnesses for the defense, although they could have been produced, and did not put the defendants on the stand. The trial lasted about three-quarters of an hour, and in less than five minutes, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. According to the allegations and affidavits, there never was a chance for the petitioners to be acquitted; no juryman could have voted for an acquittal and continued to live in Phillips County, and if any prisoner by any chance had been acquitted by a jury, he could not have escaped the mob.

A week after the trial, a group of Black Arkansans hired Jones to fight the execution of the twelve defendants.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) soon decided to fund the legal campaign to secure their release.  Although Jones had helped found the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP in 1918, the national NAACP insisted that Jones share the defense with a local White lawyer, who had served in the Confederate army.  The White lawyer died in 1920, however, leaving Jones solely responsible for the stays of execution and appeals that kept the men alive.  In one series of retrials, he escaped injury or death by spending each night in a different Black home, arriving after dark and leaving before dawn.  Yet when a habeas corpus case went to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the remaining convictions, only the name of the White lawyer hired by the NAACP, the former American Bar Association president Moorfield Storey, appeared on the brief, and only Storey argued the case, even though Jones, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar since 1905, expected also to appear.  

The challenge succeeded.  In Moore v. Dempsey (1923), the Supreme Court for the first time used the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process to overturn a state criminal conviction.  In September 1923, Arkansas’s governor commuted the death sentences to brief prison terms. The last convicted man was freed in January 1925.  Little Rock’s Black community celebrated Jones’s work in a pamphlet.  “Without flinching, without faltering,” it declared, Jones--“the brave, fearless legal light and Nestor of the Negro bar in Arkansas”--ventured into a “hot-bed of prejudice and hatred, and with colossal nerve and indomitable courage . . . fought intrepidly for the lives of all the Negroes implicated in the riot.”

Even before the Elaine Massacre, White politicians looked to Jones to intercede with the Black community.  During World War I, he persuaded the Mosaic Templars to buy a very large sum of war bonds.  A few years later, when a Little Rock mayor could not convince local banks to make a substantial loan to the city, Jones successfully threatened to tell the Black fraternal societies he advised to withdraw a much larger sum from their bank accounts.

Jones also served as informal mediator at a horrifying moment in the history of Little Rock, the burning, in May 1927, of a lynched man, John Carter, at an intersection in the heart of the city’s Black business district, within sight of the Mosaic Templars building.  Five thousand White people rioted in the intersection, damaging Black-owned business and churches.  Probably recalling how Whites, enraged by African American resistance, had destroyed the Black business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and murdered scores of the city’s African Americans, Jones joined other Black leaders in urging African Americans to stay out of sight until the National Guard restored order.  An NAACP investigator reported that for a time thereafter Jones hoped that “the better class of white people” would obtain indictments against the lynchers or at least investigate why the mayor had ordered the chief of police out of town when the lynching was imminent.  Even after it became clear no one would be punished, Jones advised the investigator (in the investigator’s words) to “see very few colored people,” because, Jones thought, it was “likely to injure them if it became known, and they could give me very little help.”  The following year, an all-White school board named a new, segregated Black high school the “Scipio A. Jones High School” in his honor.

In 1929, Jones told students at the Howard Law School “that the bugaboo of prejudice against the Negro lawyer was largely a myth.”  In a speech to the National Bar Association in 1930, he claimed that most Arkansas judges were “fair and impartial in the administration of justice.”  With notable exceptions, the state’s judges were “of the Southern aristocracy, with a pride of Race and with a deep appreciation for the hallowed traditions of English law, venerating the doctrine of Stare Decisis.”  They would not “break the great chain of precedents” just to make a Black lawyer lose.

Jones died at home in March 1943 of heart disease, with s case over the unequal funding of Arkansas’s Black and White schools in which he argued alongside the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall pending in federal courts.  Perhaps because, as a friend said, Jones “had no great desire for money” and took the cases of poor Blacks who could not pay his fees, his estate was not large.  He left a nice but modest home, as well as other assets worth $24,000 in today’s money.  At his funeral at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he had been a member for over fifty years, what a historian called “the segregated fashion of the day” prevailed, and a section of the nave was reserved for Jones’s “white friends.”

[Sources include Tom Dillard, “Scipio A. Jones,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 31 (Autumn, 1972): 201-219; J. Clay Smith, Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); William A. Waddell Jr., “Scipio Africanus Jones: Appreciation for a Journeyman Lawyer,” Arkansas Lawyer 54 (Fall 2019): 12-15; Judith Kilpatrick, “(Extra) Ordinary Men: African-American Lawyers and Civil Rights in Arkansas before 1950,” Arkansas Law Review 53 (2000): 299-400; Grif Stockley, Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919 (University of Arkansas Press, 2001).]