This post is last of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the New-York Historical Society Children’s History Book Prize. We hope you’ve been joining us here on our History Detectives blog over the past few weeks as we interviewed the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists’ books and see if your favorite will win the $10,000 prize!
This week we are chatting with Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace about Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Race to Save Twelve Innocent Men. Their book tells the true story of an early, Black civil rights hero that took on a momentous series of racially-charged court cases in early 20th-century Arkansas.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM): Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men centers on Scipio Africanus Jones, a self-taught Black attorney practicing law in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although quite prominent in his own time, Scipio Jones is not a well-known figure today. How did you first learn about this extraordinary historical figure?
Sandra & Rich (S&R): As often happens when researching hidden history stories, we first learned about Scipio Jones while immersed in landmark cases for another one of our books: Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights. Scipio—who was born enslaved—had been the heartbeat behind Moore v. Dempsey, the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Black defendants in a criminal case. As we learned about the depth of Scipio’s actions and how he risked his life to free the wrongly convicted Elaine Twelve men, we knew we had to focus on him.
DCHM: In your author's note, you call out that there is not a lot left these days commemorating Scipio Jones. In fact, although designated a national landmark, his last home is abandoned, overgrown with weeds, and lacks even a simple plaque to honor him. What did it mean to you to write Race Against Time?
S&R: It was hard to see Scipio’s home in such decay. It was harder to learn that 100 years after Moore v. Dempsey, there had never been a book written about him for young readers. And there was no way that we were going to have that continue without advocating for one. Because of racism, Scipio never received the credit he deserved as the lead attorney for Moore v. Dempsey, and racism also kept him from arguing the case in person on the floor of the Supreme Court. As a result, a century of young readers have been denied the opportunity to learn about this civil rights hero. Writing the first book for young readers about him is the best way we could honor and amplify his life and legacy.
We’re proud and humbled to be the conduit for bringing young readers this story about Scipio Jones and the Elaine Twelve Men (Frank Moore, Joe Knox, Ed Coleman, Paul Hall, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Ed Ware, Joe Fox, Albert Giles, Will Wordlow, Alf Banks, and John Martin). There had been almost no mention of this vital constitutional case or the lives of the people involved in anything written for kids or teens. Making this complex story and its legal barriers clear and engaging was a huge task and we relied on many experts. Knowing that kids are reading and connecting with the book is very satisfying.
DCHM: Why is it important to share Scipio’s story and accomplishments with modern audiences?
S&R: Race Against Time brings much needed context to today’s vital conversations about systemic racism. It's important for young readers to know how racial injustice and white supremacy became normalized in American communities, and who resisted and stood up to it. In 1919, Black Americans, including Scipio Jones, stood up for their constitutional rights, and they succeeded in holding democracy accountable amid segregation, violence, white supremacy, and the horror and brutality of lynching.
DCHM: How did you go about doing historical research for this book? What primary resources were the most useful to you?
S&R: We spent large chunks of time in university archives, reading the many trial transcripts, newspaper and magazine articles, careful notes from earlier historians, and other primary sources. For most of our books we conduct extensive interviews, but obviously Scipio and the twelve men are no longer around. So we relied on previous interviewers, notably Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who risked death by visiting the men in prison and publishing the first primary accounts of their personal lives and their harrowing testimonies.
As journalists, our major challenge was sorting through the complex legal proceedings and developing a clear understanding of them. Consultations with judges and legal scholars helped keep us on track. Superimposing letters about, to, and from Scipio Jones and the NAACP gave us insight into the segregation practices prevalent in the courtrooms.
Our constant question was “Where was Scipio?” How did he pull of this incredible feat of keeping these twelve innocent men alive while the state wanted desperately to put them to death? Not much personal information was available about Scipio, but when we isolated all of his words in archival telegrams, trial transcripts, letters he wrote to newspaper editors, and other documents, the magnitude of his impact on democracy and American civil rights history rang loud and clear.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical nonfiction?
S&R: Scipio’s story is one of hope, determination, tenacity, and fighting back, and young readers can be inspired by it. We told this story it so it won’t be forgotten, so the victims and survivors aren’t erased. We also wrote it so there is a record to help make certain that it doesn’t happen again. And we focused on the person who stood up to the ugliness, to the domestic terrorism inflicted on Black people, to the judicial injustice, and won.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men?
S&R: Astonishing but true!