A whole lot has changed in the last fifty-six years


I recently had the pleasure of introducing Paul Jones to speak to the Black Law Student Association at the University of Alabama. Dr. Jones is one of our nation’s leading collectors of African American art. He was born in the 1920s in Bessemer (a town near Birmingham) and grew up there. He shared a dream of generations of boys in this state–to play for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide. But he could not realize that dream. Instead, he played for Alabama State. Then, in 1949, as a student at Howard University, he applied to the University of Alabama’s law school. Again, he was a generation too early. He was told that while the administrators here were aware that the United States Supreme Court might mandate that the University admit students like him, he should not pursue a lawsuit:

While this may be gratuitous, I am adding that we at the University of Alabama are convinced that relationships between the races, in this section of the country at least, are not likely to be improved by pressure on behalf of members of the colored race in an effort to gain admission to institutions maintained by the State for members of the white race. On the contrary, we feel that inter-racial relationships would suffer if there is insistence that the issue be joined at this time. The better elements of both races deplore anything that tends to retard or jeopardize the development of better relationships between the races. For these reasons, therefore, we hope that you can persuade yourself not to press further your application for admission here.

Well, Jones is not a man to a man to be deterred by adversity. He opened a package store in Bessemer and later worked for the Birmingham Interracial Committee, where he become known for behind-the-scenes negotiating that resulted in positive results. For example, he tells the story of a negotiation with a prominent department store in Birmingham to remove a sign segregating an elevator. He subsequently with the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. And he began collecting art. He worked as deputy director of the peace corps in Thailand and was in charge of President Richard Nixon’s campaign to get out the black vote in 1972. In the mid-1970s, he worked as an official in the Department of Education; during that time he awarded the University of Alabama a grant for several hundred thousand dollars for extension education. He did not at that time mention his earlier dealings with the University. Jones’ involvement with politics continued. In 1982 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in Georgia.

I’ve heard many stories from Dr. Jones about his childhood in Alabama. He has many fond memories of his family and friends. The strictures of Jim Crow segregation didn’t constrain his world too much. His life is an embodiment of Ralph Ellison’s observation that though law might tell African Americans that they were unequal, the African American community constructed another reality. As Ellison asked in his review of Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma, “Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs; why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man’s dilemma?”

One of Jones’ stories is about the restaurant The Bright Star, which is an Alabama institution. It goes back to around 1907 and I recommend it should you ever find yourself in Birmingham. It has, well, character. Jones tells of how his family went there for Sunday meals in the 1930s. They entered through a side door and the proprietor set a table for them in the kitchen. Sometimes, if it wasn’t busy, they sat in the restaurant. Of course it would have been unthinkable (and illegal) at the time to have an integrated restaurant. I asked him if he’d been back in more recent times. And he said, of course–it had been many years, but he’d never been prouder than the first time he walked in through the front door. Yet more testimony to how much and quickly life changes.

A few years ago he donated a significant part of his collection to the University of Delaware and in 2004 they renovated a building for the permanent exhibition of the Paul Jones Collection.

And in October of this year, he partnered with the University of Alabama Art Department to show a selection of works from his collection. It happens that the University’s art gallery is in Garland Hall, which is named for the president of the University during the Civil War–and a man who owned a number of human beings. What a wonderful statement about how far we have come–and how much people in Alabama are interested in their common future–that we have an exhibit of African American art (loaned by a man who was once excluded on the basis of race) in a building named for a slaveholder. It is, of course, a wonderful Ellisonian moment, of unexpected moments of the past coming together in strange and positive ways. Dr. Jones, ‘lo these many years later, is enriching the campus community. He is a man of generous spirit and I, for one, have much to learn from him about the human spirit and about life.

The illustration is Jacob Lawrence’s 1978 The Library, from the Paul Jones Collection web page at the University of Delaware.

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