Radio Column

Asa Arkansas's Governor

The Story of Scipio Jones


Column Transcript

When I think about black history in Arkansas, I am always reminded of the pivotal role African Americans have played in the development of our state. From trailblazers like Daisy Bates, to poets like Maya Angelou, many exceptional black Americans have called Arkansas home.

One of those exceptional Americans was Scipio Jones. Jones was born into slavery in 1863. After gaining his freedom, Scipio Jones enrolled in Philander Smith College to begin his studies, before eventually earning his bachelor’s degree from Shorter College in North Little Rock. After graduation, Jones continued his education by reading law books and studying under Little Rock attorneys in his spare time, and in 1889 he took the Arkansas Bar Exam and passed.

Through determination Scipio Jones eventually became one of the most prominent black attorneys in Little Rock. He used his talents to defend African Americans from discrimination in the court system, successfully arguing to have several wrongful convictions overturned.

But what Scipio Jones is best known for his defense of twelve black men unfairly sentenced to death for inciting mob violence. In October of 1919, an episode of racial violence would break out that would catapult the Arkansas Delta into the national spotlight. The three days of violence that ensued would later become known as The Elaine Race Massacre. In the aftermath of the tragedy, five whites and an untold number of African Americans were dead.

After a hasty trial, twelve African American men were sentenced to death for their alleged roles in the massacre in a trial that was marked by the presence of mobs and threats of lynchings. Undeterred by threats of violence, Scipio Jones jumped at the opportunity to represent these twelve in their appeal. He was determined ensure they were given a fair trial.

After some brilliant legal maneuvering, Jones successfully had the Elaine 12’s sentences overturned by the Supreme Court, saving each of them from the death penalty.

To this day, Jones’s victory in the Moore vs. Dempsey case is considered a landmark decision for the court. The ruling established a precedent for the high court’s use of writs of habeas corpus to ensure that lower court trials did not deprive citizens of their right to due process.

Scipio Jones bravely risked his life to seek justice for his clients. In doing so, he opened an avenue for others to seek justice through the Supreme Court. I am proud that Arkansas history is full of trailblazers and courageous men like Jones, who have left their mark on the history of our state. This Black History Month I invite you to learn more about men like Scipio Jones who have contributed so much to both Arkansas and American history.