Alberta Jones, was making her mark in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1960s. She was an African American equal rights trailblazer and the city’s first female and black prosecuting attorney. Then, on August 5, 1965, she was brutally murdered. Her case remains unsolved.
Alberta Odell Jones was born in Louisville, Kentucky, November 12, 1939 to Sarah (Sadie) Frances Crawford and Odell Jones. They lived in the West End of Louisville, a predominantly black community.
She had a brother, Calvin. Her sister, Lutisha, (“Flora” Shanklin) was five years and nine months her junior. Flora says of her sister, “She was my second mom.”
She attended Central High School. Her sister reported that Alberta and her best friend had plans to become medical doctors. They visited the local hospital together. That’s where Alberta fainted at the sight of blood. She didn’t think anyone who fainted at the sight of blood could be a doctor. So she went to law school.
She attended the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes. When LMCN merged with the newly integrated University of Louisville in 1951, she became the first African American to attend U of L. She earned her bachelor’s degree, third in her class at U of L. Then she went to Howard University School of Law in Washington D.C.
In 1958, she graduated fourth out of 70 in her class at Howard University. The following year, she became the first, or one of the first, females of any race to pass the Kentucky bar.
A lot of people told me ‘You’ve got two strikes against you, you’re a woman and you’re a Negro.’ Yeah, but I’ve got one strike left, and I’ve seen people get home runs when all they’ve got is one strike.”Alberta O. Jones (Courier Journal 3/4/64)
Alberta opened a law office in downtown Louisville in 1959. A young lawyer, Darryl Owens, shared the office with Alberta.
She was friendly and outgoing. Alberta was a member of Phillips Chapel CME Church, the Fall City Bar Association, the Louisville Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and Zeta Phi Beta and Iona sororities.. Her law practice was successful.
In 1960, a young, unknown boxer named Cassius Clay hired her. (You probably know him as Muhammad Ali.) Despite the eleven white male millionaires they were dealing with, she made sure that the contract protected Clay from spending his money unwisely (as many young athletes did), by including a clause that put a percentage of all his proceeds into a trust he could not touch until he was 35. (That contract hangs in the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.)
She Loved Children
Her niece and nephew called her Auntie. When they were little, they waited on the porch for Auntie to come home from her law office. Then, she’d take them door to door collecting money for an annual fundraiser that helps children with special needs.
Alberta opened a trust fund to collect donations for a seven-year-old boy who tried to save a puppy under a train. The train started moving. He lost both his arms. She filed a $350,000 damage suit for the boy in August 1964. They settled the suit after her death.
A Role in the Civil Rights Movement
Alberta was a registered Democrat but voted independent. An advocate for educating African Americans on political participation via their votes, she created the Independent Voter’s Association, which registered 6,000 African American voters.
Depending upon which source you read, she rented (or had a neighbor make cardboard facsimiles) voting machines and held classes in her office on how to use the machines to cast independent and split party votes. In 1961, black voters helped oust the mayor and many of the city’s alderman. That led to a city ordinance that made it illegal to discriminate based on race in any place of business open to the public, a first for any major city in the south.
She took part in the 1963 civil rights marches in Louisville and in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
Career on the Rise
In 1964, she became the first female city attorney in Jefferson County, Kentucky. The following year, they appointed her prosecutor. She was the first female prosecutor of any race in Louisville. As the prosecutor for the Domestic Relations Court, she prosecuted mostly white men for spousal abuse.
The Night of the Murder
On August 5, 1964, Alberta was at home with her mother and sister. She was reading about the assassination of JFK and quipped, “Hope I don’t get assassinated.” To which her sister replied, “Don’t you worry about it, you’re not the President of the United States.”
Alberta got a phone call between 10 and 11 pm from Gladys Wycoff, a friend. Gladys ran a beauty salon in the neighborhood.
According to the newspaper, in the days following the murder, Gladys said she called to tell Alberta that the wig Alberta had ordered had come in. She said she told Alberta to come and have it styled at her convenience.
Alberta agreed to visit Gladys that night. Alberta’s mother offered to go with her, but Alberta told her to go to bed. Then, Alberta left to meet Gladys in a rental car. Her Thunderbird was in the shop for repairs.
She never came home.
The Next Morning
Alberta’s mother had lain awake all night, listening for her daughter’s return. Around seven am, after she and Flora confirmed Alberta hadn’t come home, they called Gladys.
Gladys’s daughter answered the phone. She said Gladys had gone downtown on business.
They called the police and reported Alberta was missing.
The Sad Discovery
Two boys reported they saw a body floating in the Ohio River near the Old Fountain Ferry Amusement Park at 10:35 a.m. that day.
The police retrieved the female body. Her shoes were missing, and she had no ID, but otherwise was fully clothed. According to Louisville’s paper, The Courier-Journal, the police said the “two small cuts which were on her face could have been inflicted accidentally.”
Alberta’s mother called the Louisville Crime Prevention Bureau at 1:30pm and reported her daughter missing.
Darryl Owens identified her body.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote.
Gladys reported Alberta had left her home and salon around 2 a.m.
The next day, they found Alberta’s rental car on Del Park Terrace, ten blocks southeast of where her body was found. Louisville police found fingerprints, a lot of blood, and pieces of brick in the back of the car.
On August 8th, they found her shoes near the south exit of the Sherman Minton Bridge on the Shawnee Park Golf Course. Police theorized that she’d been hit in the head with a brick and thrown off the nearby Sherman Minton Bridge. An autopsy confirmed her head injuries, but she had been alive when she was thrown in the river. She drowned.
Over the course of the investigation, police interviewed hundreds of people.
Two witnesses said they’d seen two men force a screaming woman into a car that matched the description of the rental Alberta had driven that night. One report said the men were black and that three men were in the car.
At 145 am a convenience store clerk says a woman matching Alberta’s description came in and bought some soft drinks (not just one?), then went out and talked to two men.
At 215 am a local family heard screams and saw two black men forcing a woman into a car. One man picked up something from the street and got in the car with three other men and drove away.
Not until three months after they found her body, is her death declared a homicide. The police thought Alberta was the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Her mother and sister dismissed that because Alberta didn’t wear jewelry, “not even a wristwatch” and she carried very little money.
Seven months later, a grand jury heard the case against two men. But there was not enough evidence for a grand jury to deliver a “True Bill.”
The case went cold.
Three Years Later
On July 17, 1968, four boys were climbing the substructure of the Sherman Minton bridge and found Alberta Odell Jones’s purse. The substructure extended out about a foot further than the Louisville-bound lanes. The purse was in “exceptionally good shape.” Inside the purse were Alberta’s wallet without money, identification, credit cards, a $200 check she’d made out to herself, a partial dental plate, and several key rings.
Police theorized that when Alberta had been thrown off the bridge, her purse was tossed in after her. It got caught in the substructure where it stayed. They hoped to get fingerprints off of it. Louisville Homicide Squad Sergeant Herman H. Mitchell Jr. said the police had continued to investigate the murder intermittently during the previous three years.
Yet, they did not arrest anyone for Alberta’s murder.
Her case went cold.
Nine Years Later
Detective Terry Jones, of the Louisville homicide unit’s cold case squad, began working on the case. He asked the FBI to check six fingerprints that were collected from Alberta’s rental car. They found a match.
The prints matched a man who had lived in Louisville but moved to Orange County, California. Detective Terry went out to Orange County in December 2008. He interviewed the man.
The suspect denied knowing Alberta and denied having anything to do with the murder. But the suspect’s brother said they knew Alberta.
When the detective told the man about the fingerprint match, the suspect said it was probably because he’d rented the car the previous week. He was 17 at the time of the murder.
Finally, the suspect failed a polygraph test. However, a polygraph isn’t admissible in court and the police did not have enough evidence for a conviction. They never arrested the man.
The police turned over their case to Kentucky’s commonwealth attorney, R. David Stengel’s office, as part of a new practice used when the police had exhausted a cold case investigation. Stengel’s office sent a letter to the police in 2010. The letter said that a conviction was unlikely because most of the material witnesses, the original investigating detectives, no blood samples remained for DNA testing, and they could find no evidence in the property room.
Because the evidence was missing, there was no record of where the fingerprints were found. The prospects of finding new information was more and more unlikely.
Eleven Years Later
During the 1976 investigation, Gladys changed her story. She said she had called Alberta to ask for help with a legal matter, a lawsuit either against another beautician or against the city or state for laws discriminating against her or her salon.
Although the paper reported that Alberta’s sister, Flora, initially said Gladys called about a wig, she now says the call was about a lawsuit Gladys was facing. Alberta said there was nothing she could do. (True: it is against the law for city or state prosecutors to take private clients.) Alberta told Flora Gladys said, “Since you’ve got this position, you’ve gotten so uppity that you don’t have any time for your friends.”
According to Flora, Alberta “did not want her friends who were less educated than her to think that she was above them.”
Gladys also said that about 130 am, after “the wig was fitted,” they went to a restaurant on North 4th Street & W River Road. They got sandwiches and lemonade. After they finished eating, they went back to Gladys’s house and talked for a while.
Except, at some point, Gladys changed the story again. They had shrimp, which they ate in the car in the parking lot. While in the parking lot, a car of young black men harassed them. After a while, Alberta was feeling dizzy, so they went back to Gladys’s house. Gladys styled Alberta’s new wig was wearing the wig when she left for home.
Why did they drive 2.4 miles northeast to the restaurant? Why didn’t they eat at Gladys’s house? Was the restaurant serving sandwiches or shrimp? Or both?
Then there’s the fact that Alberta had to go to work the next day. Would she really have wanted to have a wig styled after midnight? Would she have stayed if she were dizzy?
When they recovered Alberta’s body, she was not wearing a wig. No wig has ever been found.
Was Gladys lying? Did she know something and was afraid of being hurt?
Finally, there is no record that Gladys ever sued anyone.
She has since died, so perhaps we will never know what really happened at her house that night.
A New Investigator
A few years later, Lee Remington, a professor at Bellarmine University in Louisville, began a project she’d wanted to pursue ever since a photograph caught her attention during her first year as a law student at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. It was one photograph amid a row of portraits of African American pioneers in Kentucky law, all males except for one. That one was of Alberta Odell Jones.
Remington’s research led her to believe that Alberta not only deserved justice for her murder, but she deserved recognition for the many ways she was a trailblazer.
The research led Remington to question the investigation into Alberta’s case. She discovered that not all the witnesses were dead. And at least one detective who had worked the case was alive. He had decided that providing long-term support for his family wasn’t possible as a police officer and had quit the field. She found him. Then she began urging the Louisville police and the federal government to reopen Alberta’s case.
In 2017, they reopened her case, funded by the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
In 2018, the FBI added Jones to its list of cold cases.
Her murder remains unsolved.
Who Killed Alberta?
One can only speculate. There are lots of theories and lots of questions about the murder.
Why didn’t the Louisville police solve the crime at the time? Was it a case of racial discrimination by white police officers? Given the time when this murder occurred, it would not be surprise if the police were “slow” to follow up on her case.
Was it a robbery gone wrong? If it was, why didn’t the robbers keep her purse and dispose of it somewhere else? Why didn’t they take her credit cards?
Some suggested a serial killer took Alberta’s life. There were five other black women killed in Louisville that year. But serial killers usually work alone and multiple witnesses reported seeing two or more men seen with Alberta on the night of her murder.
Could it have been a political “hit?” The old guard members of the NAACP had ingratiated themselves with the political machinations of the city as best as a Black organization could in the 1960s. They did not appreciate Alberta’s educating the community to vote independently.
The Ku Klux Klan was very active back then. Could it have been a Klan member?
Was it a racially motivated hate crime? Except all the suspects were black. Still, given the time, one has to wonder.
Perhaps it was an accused in a case she prosecuted. Domestic violence victims and perpetrators are unpredictable for police, social services, and prosecutors.
It’s been fifty-eight years. Witnesses really are dying or dead. Time is running out. Will we ever find out who killed Alberta Jones?
Thanks largely to Ms. Remington, we can celebrate Alberta’s life and contributions and her legacy is growing. Alberta’s portrait hangs in the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.
She holds a place of honor at her alma mater, Central High School, with a classroom courtroom named the Alberta O. Jones Courtroom.
There is also a scholarship at Bellarmine University named in Alberta’s Honor. Ajla Hakalovic (b 1991 in Bosnia) won the first scholarship in 2014.
On an October day in 2017, Louisville’s Mayor, Greg Fischer, led the celebration of Alberta Jones’s legacy with a Hometown Heroes banner. They hung the banner on the side of River City Bank at the corner of Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
Her photo is also in the county prosecutor’s office. Her portrait also hangs in Bellarmine’s library.
In 2020, the community planned to name a park after her.
Alberta Odell Jones was a woman of courage, determination, and strength. She did a lot of good during her brief life. Had she lived, what else might she have accomplished?
Had you heard of Alberta Jones before?
Will they ever bring her murderer to justice?
Second & third images purchased from DepositPhoto.com
Resources (in no particular order):
- WHAS11.com “What Happened to Alberta Jones?” 5/7/2018.
- “Alberta O. Jones, Age 34, A fearless and trailblazing Black woman prosecutor”
- The Alberta Jones Project
- “Another black woman murdered in Louisville,” Elise Hagan Oct 14, 2020 Medium
- “Alberta Jones Part 1—Respect.” The ProsecutorsPodcast, August 17, 2021 , and Alberta Jones Part 2 August 24, 2021
- Campaign to End racial Segregation in Louisville
- This Day In History | August 06
- The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) · 4 May 2010, Tue
- The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) · 18 Jul 1968
- The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) · 6 Aug 1965
- “Alberta Odell Jones (1930-1965)” By Euell A. Nielsen Sept 10, 2019, Blackpast.org