Scipio Jones was a prominent Black lawyer who defended a dozen men following the Elaine Massacre.
If you’ve visited the post office at 1700 Main Street in Little Rock lately, you may have noticed a new addition. Thanks to the work of several people like artist Wade Hampton, a life-size painting of Scipio Africanus Jones, the post office’s namesake, now hangs inside the building.
“Art is documentation, it’s how we write our history,” Hampton says.
The path from concept to the formal unveiling Feb. 24 took years of conversations and the passage of a federal law. The United States House of Representatives passed legislation in 2007 to name the post office after Jones and while a plaque at the building bore his name, post office regulations restrict the items that can be placed on display.
To address this, Rep. French Hill, a Republican representing the state’s 2nd congressional district, introduced legislation to allow a full-sized portrait of Jones to be installed at the post office. Following the law’s passage in Nov. 2020, Hill issued a statement praising the decision.
“I introduced this bill because it became evident to me that it was going to take a literal ‘act of Congress’ to direct that a portrait of one of Arkansas’s and the nation’s most important civil rights champions to hang in the post office bearing his name…I know that generations of Arkansans will enjoy the visual reminder of Scipio Jones’ important role in American history,” Hill said.
Born into slavery in 1863 in Dallas County, Arkansas, Jones became a prominent Little Rock attorney. He’s most known for his role defending twelve men sentenced to death following the Elaine Massacre of 1919.
Although artist Wade Hampton is a Little Rock native, he wasn’t familiar with Jones when he was first approached about the project in 2017 by Hearne Fine Art. Wade, who now has an art studio in Las Vegas, started researching Jones and found only a few photos from which to draw inspiration.
Ultimately, the artist used his own father to serve as a model as he created his oil on canvas painting. At 7.5 feet tall and 6.5 feet wide, the artwork depicts Jones wearing a suit and hat as he walks out of the courthouse with a suitcase in one hand and a blue umbrella in the other.
Hampton filmed himself creating the large painting in a small 390-square-foot space and he intends to use the footage to create a documentary. The artwork is his largest piece to date, but not by much. He previously created a self-portrait that hangs at Saracen Casino and Resort in Pine Bluff that measures 7.5 feet tall and 5.5 feet wide.
“Life-size pieces, just by the sheer size, it’s very impactful,” he says.
By installing his portrait of Jones in the Little Rock post office, Hampton says it creates an unofficial gallery and he hopes the impact of the painting’s presence will be twofold. In addition to exposing passersby to the arts, he hopes the portrait will also inspire people to learn more about the history of the artwork’s subject.
“Don’t just look at the painting and think oh, that’s a big painting, or that’s a pretty painting, or say yay or nay to it, but just go back and research who Scipio Jones was and what he did,” Hampton says.
The trip to Arkansas has been a busy one for the artist. After unveiling the Scipio Jones portrait, Hampton traveled to Northwest Arkansas where he created a live sketch during an art exhibition opening and taught dance lessons. For the latter, he has partnered with En Fuego Dance and Fitness and will host mambo workshops this weekend.
More information about Hampton’s projects is available on his Facebook page.