The next “Hometown Heroes” banner in downtown Louisville will be unveiled in October, honoring pioneering attorney and civil rights leader Alberta Jones, whose life was tragically cut short at 34 years old in 1965.
In 1959, Jones became the first African-American woman to pass the Kentucky bar exam, then became the first female prosecutor in the state in 1965, handling domestic abuse cases in Louisville. She was the first attorney of Muhammad Ali, negotiating his first professional boxing contract in 1960. Jones also established the Independent Voters Association, through which she led drives to register thousands of African-American voters in Louisville and education campaigns on how to use the voting booths.
Just five months after becoming a prosecutor, Jones was abducted from her car, beaten and thrown off the Sherman Minton Bridge. No one was ever arrested for her murder, though LMPD recently announced that it was reinvestigating the cold case due to possible new leads.
The new “Alberta’s Louisville” banner will hang on the River City Bank building downtown at 6th and Muhammad Ali, facing east, with the unveiling ceremony held at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 9. The Greater Louisville Pride Foundation is the nonprofit that coordinates the Hometown Heroes program, erecting banners and murals celebrating notable locals from Muhammad Ali to Jennifer Lawrence to build pride in the city.
The foundation first approved Jones as a recipient of a banner last year, and a successful online fundraising effort produced the $8,000 needed to make and hang the banner. That effort was led by Jones’ younger sister Flora Shanklin and Bellarmine University professor Lee Remington Williams — who has spent years researching Jones and was instrumental in convincing LMPD to reopen the cold case.
Williams says that Jones was unknown to her until she attended UofL’s Brandeis School of Law, and hopes that the new banner will play a role in giving her the widespread recognition that she deserved for her life’s work.
“She was truly, truly amazing… It blew my mind that I’d never heard of her,” said Williams. “She’s the most important female legal figure — black or white — in the entire state, and people haven’t even heard of her.”
Born in Louisville, Jones graduated from Louisville Central High School and attended the University of Louisville after it merged with the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes, graduating third in one of the university’s first integrated classes. She then graduated fourth in her class at the Howard University School of Law.
Jones was profiled in The Courier-Journal several times for her work and accomplishments between 1959 and her death in 1965, repeatedly described as cheerful and outgoing, while flashing her sense of humor. After becoming the first African-American woman to pass the state bar exam, Jones told the newspaper she didn’t know she was the first to sit for the exam until a photographer showed up to take pictures of her, saying, “If I had known how much was depending on me I would have studied harder — and I would have worn something different.”
Profiled again by the C-J in March of 1965 when she became Kentucky’s first female prosecutor, the headline read “Hard To Keep Up With, That’s Alberta Jones” — with Jones joking she had little time for a social life or hobbies like golf with all of her work and activism. In addition to locally organizing for the 1963 March on Washington, playing a key role in integrating the workforce at city hall, raising $10,000 for an injured 8-year old boy, and giving countless speeches to groups across the city, Jones said her Independent Voters Association had registered 6,000 people to vote at that time, in addition to their education program teaching African-Americans how to use the voting machine.
In the same profile, Jones said through her speeches at schools and churches she was trying to inspire young African-American women to also become an attorney some day, recalling those who doubted her when she came back to Louisville after graduating from Howard.
“When I got back home a lot of people said: ‘You’ve got two strikes against you. You’re a woman and you’re a Negro,’ ” said Jones. “Yeah, but I’ve got one strike left, and I’ve seen people get home runs when all they’ve got left is one strike.”
This story has been updated to reflect the new date for the unveiling ceremony.