By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — Academic achievement was “foundational” and a “focus” in the Jones household, according to Dorothy D. Jones, the youngest of Marvis LaVerne Kneeland-Jones’s four children.
“She really led the charge with all of her kids,” Jones said.
Kneeland-Jones was an influential educator, musician, businesswoman, civil rights activist, and, most notably, a member of the Memphis State Eight that included Eleanor Gandy, Rose Blakney-Love, Sammie Burnett Johnson, Luther McClellan, Ralph Prater, John Simpson, and Bertha Rogers Looney.
Kneeland-Jones and her colleagues drew national attention in the fall of 1959 when they were the first Black students to integrate Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis.
Kneeland-Jones died March 13 at her home in Memphis. She was 81. Bertha Rogers Looney, Luther McClellan and Ralph Prater are the only surviving members.
Jones said those days on campus were “tough times” for her mother, who never tried to suppress those painful memories or keep her children from learning what she and the others endured in their pursuit of a college education.
They were vilified, harassed, and ostracized, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate education was “inherently unequal.”
“It was an emotional toll on her,” said Jones, remembering what her mother had told her. “A lot of those memories resurfaced, and she started talking about how it was very hard during that time.”
As daunting as it was battling discrimination, Kneeland-Jones was determined to succeed despite the obstacles. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the university in elementary education and a Master of Science degree in education as well.
After years of study, Kneeland-Jones began teaching in Memphis City Schools and inspired hundreds of children to succeed. She taught school for 25 years and capped off a career in teaching that began in earnest and never waned.
“The same effort and tenacity she dealt with education, with her students, she did the same thing with her children,” Jones said. “She made sure that each of us had individualized and customized learning opportunities based on each child’s needs.”
Jones said she and her siblings – Dr. Gladys A. Jones, Rufus E. Jones Jr., and Dr. Ida L. Jones Pittman – were educated in public, private, and boarding schools – or a combination thereof. And each one graduated college.
“She set the example for us aspiring to get advanced-level degrees as well,” Jones said.
Music also was “critically important” in the Jones household, Jones said. Her mother, she pointed out, was a classical pianist and played for Washington Chapel CME Church.
“We all played instruments,” she said.
Kneeland-Jones shared parenting responsibilities with her husband of 57 years, Tennessee’s state Rep. Rufus E. Jones Sr., a statesman, sales tax auditor, lobbyist, and trailblazing entrepreneur, who held the legislative position for 16 years.
Kneeland-Jones met her husband on a blind date. Sammy Burnett Johnson, a member of the Memphis State Eight, had arranged the date, Jones said. He “introduced my mom to my dad.”
Rufus E. Jones Sr, then a promising entrepreneur, was finishing up at Michigan State University at the time, Jones said, adding, “So they started their courtship after that.”
He died in 2019. In addition to his political quick wit, he was an advocate for economic development and the reputed proprietor of Jones Big Star #102 grocery store, one of his notable entrepreneurial endeavors.
Kneeland-Jones was a powerhouse in her own right as an education advocate, organizer of voting registration drives, and worked with charitable and civic organizations. She also operated her own business and supported her husband’s endeavors, including his political campaigns.
She was a charter member of the Shelby County (TN) Chapter of the LINKS, Incorporated, The Friends of the Memphis and Shelby County Libraries, Washington Chapel C.M.E. Church, and the National, Tennessee, and Memphis Education Associations.
In 2000, the University of Memphis established the Memphis State Eight Best Paper Prize for the best historical paper on the African American experience in honor of the Memphis State Eight.
And in 2006, Shirley Raines, then-president of the U of M, invited the Memphis State Eight back to the campus to pay tribute to the eight trailblazers with a former dinner and reception.
A historical marker was placed outside the U of M’s Administration Building in 2012. Seven of the eight former students were present for the presentation, including Kneeland-Jones.
She also was among five of the eight trailblazers in 2019 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of that day when they courageously broke the color barrier and stepped into the annals of history.
Memorial services for Kneeland-Jones were held March 21 at Mt. Olive Cathedral C.M.E. Church.