Little Rock’s post office at 1800 Main Street was named for Scipio A. Jones in 2007, but no one mailing a letter there would ever know why. John Gill went to the post office looking for information about Jones, a pioneering Arkansas lawyer. “There was nothing,” he said.
Now, several years and a literal act of Congress later, Gill is hoping to raise $50,000 for a portrait of Scipio A. Jones in the Scipio A. Jones Post Office. The installation will include lighting and a clear protective cover for the portrait, which will measure 78 x 90 inches — “in keeping with size historically of art at post offices,” noted Gill, who wrote a book on New Deal-era art in Arkansas post offices.
In Arkansas, Scipio Africanus Jones is probably best known for defending the Elaine 12 (as well as the nearly 90 other Black men who received related prison terms) in the aftermath of the 1919 mass murder of dozens, if not hundreds, of African Americans in southern Phillips County for trying to unionize for higher cotton prices.
But it was the precedent established by a Jones brief in the U.S. Supreme Court relating to the Elaine case that’s his greatest legal legacy: that federal courts can review state court decisions. Taking something all the way to the Supreme Court wasn’t always a given. “It was Jones’s brief; it was Jones’s writing,” Gill said. To Gill, himself a Little Rock attorney, honoring Jones with this portrait was simply “something that must be done. This guy changed American law,” he said.
“Before that, state Supreme Court cases were final. That was it,” he said. All of us have been affected by something this Arkansas lawyer did, Gill noted, “whether we know it or not. It’s a big deal.”
Jones was born enslaved near Tulip (Dallas County) in 1863, but permitted to attend school as a child. After moving to Little Rock, Jones attended Philander Smith College, and received a bachelor’s degree from Shorter College in North Little Rock, known as Bethel University when he attended. Jones was rejected by the University of Arkansas School of Law because he was Black.
In 1889, Jones began practicing law in Pulaski County as one of the only Black lawyers in the capital city, or in the state for that matter — and Jones was the first Black lawyer to appear regularly before the Arkansas Supreme Court. He had an active practice in Little Rock for more than a half-century. Ownership of his former home on Cross Street, unoccupied for years, was taken over in August 2020 by a nonprofit called the Dunbar Horace Mann Archives and Building Project, which plans to raise funds for rehabilitation of the Jones house.
For his final court case, Jones joined Thurgood Marshall, who then was in his mid-30s, in suing the Little Rock School District for equal pay for a Black teacher in the district. Jones died in 1943 before the case could be decided. He won.
Little Rock-born artist Wade Hampton painted a preliminary design for the Jones portrait, which was commissioned by Gill and his wife through Hearne Fine Art, and used as a visual example to help get the proposed Jones portrait passed through Congress. The law dictates that Hampton paint the portrait. A Parkview Magnet graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree at Missouri’s Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Hampton got his start in art as a Little Rock student “drawing on a notebook page,” inspired by Saturday morning cartoons. “I’m very thankful, and very honored to be part of this project, and to continue that tradition of society portraiture,” he said.
“Going into more research, you see the stories,” Hampton said. “You realize how impactful they are. … . “There are the literal facts of the [Elaine] case and also an aesthetic narrative. My idea with the portrait is to capture an essence of completion, and an essence of elation, and an essence of turning the page.”
The scale of the portrait, Hampton said, is something he finds freeing. “Painting life-size portraiture, you can move your arms more. Painting and drawing, at least for me, is like dance,” he said. “Doing life-size portraiture, it’s a cliché, but you literally have to step back to see the big picture.”
“We’ve been at it a month,” Gill said of fundraising for the portrait, which didn’t start until after the law had been signed. Donations are tax-deductible and are being collected through the Central Arkansas Library System Foundation.
Tax-deductible donations can be made to:
CALS Foundation – Scipio Jones Portrait
c/o Carolyn Owen
425 W. Capitol Ave., Suite 3800
Little Rock, AR 72201