Posted on 04/07/2008

Photo taken on January  1, 1920

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African American
Former Slave
Scipio Africanus Jones
Elaine Riot Massacre

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Lawyer for the Elaine 12

Lawyer for the Elaine 12
Scipio Africanus Jones, the attorney who led efforts to overturn the death sentences of the Elaine Twelve.
[b. 1863 - d. 1943]

Named after a Roman general, Scipio Africanus Jones was born into slavery, probably around 1863. His master Dr. Sanford Reamey of Tulip in Dallas County
was a prominent white man and also Scipio's father.

Jones is most famous for his skillful 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.

Arkansas Historical Society