Scipio Jones – a Hero to Meet for Our Time

race-against-timeLynn:  I have a new hero and it saddens me to say that this extraordinary person, Scipio Jones, was unknown to me before reading Sandra Neil and Rich Wallace’s latest book, Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2021). Scipio Jones was a singularly courageous and inspiring man whose name should be known to every American and I hope this outstanding book helps make that a fact.

Race Against Time is a story of Scipio Jones but it is also about another buried but important event—the Elaine Massacre—and the twelve men wrongfully condemned to execution. The time was 1919. In Elaine, Arkansas, returning Black soldiers came home to find that oppression, discrimination, and fear were still the prevailing conditions. Sharecroppers, they struggled with unfair prices for their cotton and a system that looked the other way at not just inequality but at blatant terrorizing of the Black community. After risking their lives to fight for their country, many of these Black veterans refused to accept the situation and in Elaine, a union was organized to fight for fair prices. While meeting one night in a local church, carloads of white vigilantes attacked, shooting and killing more than 200 men, women, and children. During the melee, 5 white men were killed, some by their own bullets in the confusion. Almost immediately, 12 Black men were arrested for murder, tried, and convicted.

Enter Scipio Jones, who risked his life, spent five years of intensive work, and expending most of his personal wealth, desperately striving to save the twelve. Eventually the case made it to the Supreme Court and became the first time African Americans won a Supreme Court decision. As always, the Wallaces write with admirable clarity, making this complex legal story understandable for a teen audience. This is also a heart-stopping story of suspense. Fascinating and deeply relevant in our time, this is a story that should be read and remembered.

Cindy: Like Lynn, and the Wallaces before they unearthed the story while researching a later court case, I’d never heard of this courageous and brilliant lawyer or the story of this important legal battle to not only save lives, but to move justice forward for persecuted African Americans. We still have a long way to go for legal justice for all, but Scipio Jones certainly provided a push in that progress, and at great personal sacrifice and risk to his own safety.

I also don’t know as much as I should about the history of the NAACP, so it was surprising to me how little faith the leadership had in having a black lawyer represent the case that he had worked so hard to prepare. In some states, especially in the segregated south, it was also a legal mandate for a white lawyer to present the cases. Of course, in 1919, Scipio Jones couldn’t even ride in the same train car as his white colleague or sleep in the same hotel. For his own safety, after a long day in court he had to find a local family willing to host him for the night, changing his location daily for his protection, and that of the people willing to help him.

This horrifying and fascinating story also includes famed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who visited the incarcerated men and wrote about them, and held a protest to raise funds for their defense. Jones also had a young attorney working with him on a final case against the Little Rock school district, who he was suing for equal pay for Black teachers and administrators. Scipio died before the case was finished but that young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, continued on and won the case.

Scipio Jones, born enslaved and self-taught, and his heroic and brilliant work need to be known, and honored. Start by reading this powerful book.

Stories That Need to Be Told – Picture Books Take Up the Challenge

Lynn and Cindy: One of the things we love about picture books is that authors and illustrators often take up the challenge of bringing a little known story to young readers. It is so important to keep our history and our stories alive! As reviewers, we also love that we get the benefit of these stories too. Here are two new picture books that do this important work—and do it wonderfully.

Lynn: Decades before Rosa Park refused to sit in the back of a bus, another brave determined woman demanded her rights on a streetcar in New York. Beth Anderson tells her inspiring story in Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2020). It was 1854 in New York City and Elizabeth Jenkins, a teacher and organist from a wealthy family, was on her way to church. When the horse-drawn streetcar arrived it had empty seats and Lizzie and her friend hurried to board. But the conductor would not allow them on, telling them to wait for the car for “her people.” Lizzie had no intention of waiting. There was no law keeping anyone of color from riding the streetcars although there was a custom of not riding if a white passenger objected. When no one on board objected, Lizzie persisted and the conductor physically threw them from the car. Lizzie, whose family were leaders in their community and well connected, took the Third Avenue Streetcar company to court where, with her attorney Chester A. Arthur, she won her case, paving the way for people of color to fight for their rights to ride then and in the future.

The text is wonderful, lively, and compelling and I’m truly sorry it has taken me so long to learn about Elizabeth Jennings. The author notes that the “dialogue closely follows her account as it appeared in the newspapers of the time,” and this gives the story a very immediate and personal feel that will appeal to kids. The back matter is outstanding too with fascinating additional historical material on Elizabeth Jennings and her case in an Author’s Note, information on the research. a bibliography, a list of further readings, and a Note from the Illustrator.

And speaking of illustrators! I am a big admirer of E.B. Lewis’s illustrations and here they add wonderfully to the overall impact of the story. Lewis, who usually uses a muted palette, chose intense colors and the result is a wonderful sense of the drama of the event. In an artist’s note, Lewis says, “I wanted to go all out in the way of color—to stretch my own internal prism.” He even had to purchase colors he had never used before. I’m so glad he did as the result is beautiful and effective!

Once again a picture book has introduced me to a memorable and important historical person that I had never heard of before. I’m beginning to think that we should give up textbooks and flood our classrooms with shelves of outstanding nonfiction picture books!

Cindy: Another African American girl who took an important seat is featured in A Ride to Remember (Abrams, 2020) by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan. Occasional peaceful protests at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore, Maryland were held for a decade asking for the right for people of color to visit the park. Nothing changed. But after new segregation laws were passed in Baltimore in 1962, a big protest was planned at the park for Independence Day, July 4, 1963. Arrests were made but the protest continued a few days later. When pressure mounted as the publicity surrounding the protests spread, change finally occurred and the park officials corrected their policy. On August 28, 1963, the park was opened to everyone. Sharon Langley’s parents bought tickets and they were the first family of color to walk through the gates. Sharon was photographed riding a horse on the carousel, a photo that ended up in the newspapers the next day. The carousel is now turning its circles on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and Sharon Langley’s name is on a horse’s saddle and horseshoe.

Co-author Amy Nathan wrote a book for teens and adults Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement that also includes the other historic event of 8-28-63, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper’ artwork helps tell this important story in moving paintings.

Bringing Down a President – A History for Today’s Teens

Lynn: With the term impeachment on everyone’s minds, Bringing Down a President: The Watergate Scandal (Roaring Brook, 2019) by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy couldn’t be more timely!

In chronological order, the authors take readers step-by-step through the events of the unfolding Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon. Beginning with the day Nixon installed the secret recording devices in the White House that became so pivotal, the authors then move to the break-in of the Democratic headquarters and follow the chain of events that brought down a presidency. The narrative device used by the authors called “Fly on the Wall” is chatty and irreverent but it clearly distinguishes between actual quotations and clarifying expositions that will help teen readers to sort through the convoluted issues of what was said in public, what was said in secret, and what lay at the heart of the actions of the Nixon staff.

For all of its light approach, the book is very clear on the moral and constitutional elements at the heart of the scandal and it is startling how many of these same elements are in play today on the national scene. Nixon’s statement that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal” is strongly disputed here with a legal and constitutional basis for this contention. Balis and Levy do an excellent job of presenting a clear accounting of who did what when and why it mattered. Having lived through this unfolding scandal, I remember the confusion, doubt, and fear that afflicted most of us and I think the authors do an excellent job of conveying the prevailing culture of public trust in the government that had mostly existed at the time and the impact of the scandal both then and on today’s cynical climate of distrust and suspicion.

Back matter includes a terrific Timeline (how I wish I’d had THIS at the time) and outstanding Source Notes. Throughout the book, the authors make it clear why accurate sources are critical to the accounting and in this time of political ambiguity, the authors are also clear on what is morally and legally right and what is not. Wonderful black and white illustration add to this lively you-are-there accounting. Fascinating and important!