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Memphis State Eight’s Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones dead at 81

Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones, one of the Memphis State Eight students who integrated the university in 1959, died at her home Sunday evening (March 13) surrounded by her children. She was 81.

“Mom had been on hospice the past two years,” said daughter and primary caregiver, Dorothy D. Jones. “Her last two months were especially rough, but she is no longer suffering.”

Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones (Courtesy photo)

Called “LaVerne Jones” by those who knew her best, Jones, along with seven other African-American students, integrated university, now the University of Memphis. They became known as the Memphis State Eight. 

Although there was no violence, the high level of daily threats and intimidation prompted law enforcement to assign plainclothes officers to escort them to and from class.

Jones, the widow of the late Tennessee state Rep. Rufus E. Jones, was born Feb. 1, 1941, to James Henry and Gladys Robinson Kneeland in Chicago. The family moved to Memphis shortly after her birth.

At the age of 8, Mrs. Jones and her mother were victims in a hit-and-run accident, that fatally injured her mother. 

Mrs. Jones was sent to live with her grandmother, while her father provided for the family as an over-the-road truck driver.

She was attending Douglass High School when her father brought her home to live with him. Mrs. Jones transferred to Hamilton High School, where she graduated Salutatorian in 1958. 

While at Hamilton, Mrs. Jones was president and director of the Hamilton High Glee Club. She was classically trained as a pianist and soloist while still a teen.

Tri-State Bank President Jesse H. Turner Sr., who was national treasurer for the NAACP, hired her as a bookkeeper, often calling on her to play and sing at civil rights rallies. 

Turner encouraged Mrs. Jones to pursue higher education, first at his alma mater, LeMoyne College (before the Owen College merger). She eventually took the rigorous admission exam to Memphis State, which she passed.

The courtship between Mrs. Jones and her future husband Rufus E. Jones began when the two were introduced by fellow Memphis State Eight student Sammie Burnette Johnson.

A few years later, Mr. Jones completed studies at Michigan State University and immediately proposed marriage. 

Mrs. Jones dropped out of Memphis State University and married Jones only days after turning 21. Four births rapidly expanded the family: Gladys, Rufus, Ida, and Dorothy. 

Mrs. Jones returned to Memphis State full-time, graduating in 1974 with a bachelor’s and master’s in elementary education.

She taught most of her 25 years in the legacy Memphis City Schools at Lester Demonstration Elementary. 

Mrs. Jones career path also included her working as a public relations manager and educational consultant of the REJ & Associates, a lobbying firm. The company was founded by her husband after he left the legislature.

She has been honored with the Arthur S. Holman Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Memphis and named a Civil Rights Pioneer by the Memphis Branch NAACP.

Mrs. Jones’ story is told in The History Makers of Chicago book series.

With Jones’ death, there are four surviving members of the barrier-breaking pioneers: Luther McClellan, Ralph Prater, Bertha Rogers Looney and John Simpson. Sammie Burnett Johnson, Eleanor Gandy and Rose Blakney Love are deceased. 

Mrs. Jones’ funeral is scheduled for noon Monday (March 21) at Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church, 538 Linden Ave.  

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to: Washington Chapel C.M.E Church; P.O. Box 9095, Memphis, Tennessee 38190.

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