SPIRIT OF ALABAMA: PAUL JONES EMBODIES FORGIVENESS, REDEMPTION THROUGH ART COLLECTION
Reporting by WVUA 23’s Mike Royer
Writing by WVUA 23’s Savannah Bullard
Paul R. Jones’ story, one of forgiveness and redemption, begins 70 years ago and ends in a sunny little studio in downtown Tuscaloosa, where his collection of American art sits today.
“It’s fantastic to be around this art every day,” said Emily Bibb, the museum’s curator. “Every time I go into my collection storage area to look at a painting for somebody or to learn more about one of the artists, I come away with a new favorite piece of artwork.”
The Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art is just that. Managed by the University of Alabama, Jones’ legacy lines the walls of the studio. And as famous radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, sometimes things are better when you have the rest of the story.
Born in 1928, Jones grew up in a coal and iron camp in Bessemer, Alabama. He attended Alabama State University and Howard University, then applied to the University of Alabama Law School. It was 1949 – a very different and difficult time.
Jones received a rejection letter from William Adams, the Dean of Admissions that said, in part, “The problem posed by your application is one of which we have long been conscious and which we from time to time been called upon in the past to meet.”
Adams went on to suggest Jones contact the State Department of Education because they have a special program to assist students of color who desire to engage in the study of law. The program helps these students obtain opportunities for entering “high class institutions located elsewhere.” Adams’ definition of “elsewhere” meant Jones was better off seeking law study somewhere where people of color were socially accepted. The University of Alabama was no such school.
“Therefore, we hope that you can persuade yourself not to press further your application for admission here,” Adams wrote to Jones, a warning disguised as a pleasant farewell.
After getting his education elsewhere, Jones became active on the Birmingham Interracial Committee of the Jefferson County Coordinating Council for Social Forces. He later worked for the U.S. Department of Justice on Civil Rights issues, and his work on the Model Cities Program was often commended during his time at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jones even served as deputy director of the Peace Corps in Thailand.
And, he collected art.
Jones’ amassed a collection of over 2,000 pieces over the years, a value totaling in the millions. Inspired by annual African American art shows at Atlanta University, Jones would befriend African American artists and purchase their work. He collected art that he loved, often hosting mini exhibitions in his home for colleagues and friends. His primary goal was to promote the talents of the artists he met, while also encouraging gallery and museum coordinators to recognize the work of black artists.
But, Jones did not seek a profit with his hobby. While he donated a few hundred pieces to the University of Delaware in 2001, Jones loved his home state just as much as he loved art. So in 2008, two years before his death, he donated his remaining 1,700 pieces to the same institution that had rejected him for law school so many years before.
“Part of the reconciliation was also an apology from the University and an honoring of Paul and what he had done throughout his life,” Bibb said. “So, he received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University. He was actually a commencement speaker here and part of what I think is really important are some of the things he said in that commencement speech.”
Jones was the speaker at the 2006 commencement. Speculation circulated regarding what he would say. Some wondered if he would be bitter. But he spoke with sensitivity and delivered a speech that matched his lifelong ideals: forgive and encourage others.
“He told the University to do better in the future and he also spoke about forgiveness without bitterness,” Jones said. “And I think that that’s really one of the most important parts of talking about his gift … Not only he was apologized to, which is a very good thing on the University’s part, but he did have it in himself to extend his forgiveness to the University and to give us this amazing gift to not only the University, but the people of the state of Alabama, so that this art can be seen and used into perpetuity.”
On the day of his big donation, Jones spoke of what he hoped the future might hold.
“I hope that we have reached a point in this country where we can no longer apologize for the history of the past in the state, but begin to talk about the things we’re doing and are going to do and make this a whole new era, a new day, a new way of doing things for the state of Alabama, for the citizens and for the University,” Jones said in a speech made on Oct. 14, 2008.
Because of Jones’ generosity and compassion, today patrons can enjoy his collection at the museum on 6th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa. The entire collection is stored and rotated through a simple but beautiful space downtown.
“This artwork is the property of the people of the state of Alabama,” Bibb said. “So this is yours, you should come and see it. You should come and enjoy it, you should come and look at this artwork because one of the great things about artwork and one of the things Paul really wanted to happen is that the artwork encourages conversations.”
Bibb said some of those conversations might seem trivial, but others may deal with how we treat one another, how we view others who may look different than we do, and how we can all live and forgive without bitterness, exactly like Jones did.
And that’s the spirit of Alabama.
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