Alberta Jones’ life was one of firsts.
She was the first African-American woman to pass the Kentucky bar and the first female prosecutor in Jefferson County. But 51 years ago Friday, Jones’ life came to an abrupt end. Her body was found on the banks of the Ohio River near the Sherman Minton Bridge. The case was never solved.
More than half a century later, the pain of Jones’ murder is still fresh for her sister, Flora Shanklin.
”Because even after 51 years, it still hurts,” Shanklin says.
By the time she turned 30, Alberta Jones had already accomplished a lot. Not only had she made history by becoming the first African-American woman to pass the Kentucky bar, Jones was also chosen as a young Muhammad Ali’s first lawyer. And in 1964, Jones became Jefferson County’s first female prosecutor.
But despite all her accomplishments, and although her photograph still hangs in the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office (pictured above), Alberta Jones is hardly a household name in Kentucky.
Bellarmine political science professor Lee Williams first came across a photo of Jones while Williams was a law student at the University of Louisville.
“Why in the world have I never heard of this woman, she sounds phenomenal,” she thought.
Williams says the list of Jones’ accomplishments that accompanied the photo stopped her in her tracks.
“It even transcends race in the sense that this was a female also negotiating a boxing contract in the 1960s, gathering together these prominent, prominent Louisvillians to sponsor Cassius Clay,” Williams says.
Williams dug into Jones’ story to find not just a person who inspired African-Americans, women and many she encountered, but an enduring mystery surrounding her murder.
Flora Shanklin says on that August 1965 night, Jones did something she had never done before. Shanklin says her sister let a friend pressure her into leaving the house late at night to meet up with friends.
“She didn’t want her friends to think she had gotten above them, so she went on out,” Shanklin says. “Her mother told her not to go, ‘she’s gonna get you killed’. And that’s exactly what happened.”
When Jones wasn’t at home the next morning, Shanklin says she feelings of dread began to grow.
“And in my heart I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to admit it,” she says.
Jones’ beaten body was found that morning on the banks of the Ohio River near the Sherman Minton Bridge.
After the Shock, Questions — and Theories
After the initial shock of Jones’ murder, the focus shifted to who and why. Williams says there was no shortage of theories. Could powerful people that Jones kept away from Muhammad Ali be involved? Could it have been related to her work as a prosecutor? Was it because of her civil rights work that angered both Democrats and Republicans?
“She was actually filing complaints against other black leaders because she started the Independent Voters Association, known as the IVA, where Alberta argued that blacks should register as independents and then that way, neither party would have control over them,” says Williams.
No definitive answer has ever come to light.
Williams says the only piece of evidence remaining is a fingerprint taken from inside the car Jones was driving that night. The print was matched by the FBI in 2008. Later, Louisville Metro Police closed the case because of a lack of further evidence.
No arrest has been made, nor has the individual, who is still alive, been questioned since the match. WFPL isn’t naming him because he’s not been charged with the crime.
Now, Williams is formally calling for the LMPD to reopen the case.
“I just know that someone out there knows,” Williams says. “That’s the thing about time — there’s always time and there’s always truth, and maybe someone will come forward for whatever reason, after all this time.”
Shanklin says she’d like closure. But whatever the outcome, she says nothing will change the fact that Alberta Jones is gone.
“I lost three things: I lost my friend, I lost my sister, and I lost my second mom,” she says.