Christian Education

Memphis State Eight member Marvis Kneeland Jones has died

Marvis LaVerne Kneeland Jones, one of the first black students to attend what is now the University of Memphis, has died.

Jones died Sunday at the age of 81. She died of natural causes, according to family members.

Jones was born in Chicago on February 1, 1941. She was less than a year old when her family moved to Memphis. She graduated from Hamilton High School.

After Brown v. Supreme Court Board of Education ordered the desegregation of the Southern school system in 1959, Jones was among the first eight black students to pass the entrance exam and enroll in Memphis State University . She and her comrades became known as Memphis State 8.

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While at Memphis State, Jones pursued a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. However, she took a four-year hiatus due to the harsh discrimination she faced while there. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1974. While in college, Jones worked as a secretary at the NAACP.

She also earned her Masters in Education from Memphis State and taught in the Memphis public school system for 25 years.

Jones was married to the late Rufus Jones, whom she supported by organizing voter registration drives for his successful campaign for state representative in Tennessee. When she retired from teaching, Jones worked as a public relations manager for REJ & Associates, the government relations consulting firm founded by her husband.

For two decades, Jones and her husband owned and operated Jones Big Star #102 grocery store in South Memphis, where they also raised their children.

Outside of work, Jones has remained active in her church community (Washington Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) as well as several community organizations, including as a founding member of the Shelby County (TN) chapter of Links, Inc. ; The Friends of Memphis and Shelby County Libraries; and the Tennessee Education Association.

She received a lifetime membership in the NAACP and was honored by the University of Memphis with an Arthur S. Holman Lifetime Achievement Award.

The University of Memphis also established the Memphis State Eight Best Paper Prize in 2000, for the best historical paper on the African-American experience, in honor of Jones and his classmates.

She is the fifth of 8 from the State of Memphis to die. Eleanor Gandy and Rose Blakney Love died in 2017. Sammie Burnett Johnson died in 2011 and John Simpson died in 2020. The other band members are Bertha Rogers Looney, Luther McClellan and Ralph Prater.

Jones is survived by her four children and five grandchildren.

Services will be held Monday at noon at Mt. Olive Cathedral CME, 585 Linden Ave.

The family asks in lieu of flowers to send all financial thanks to Washington Chapel CME Church, PO Box 9095, Memphis, TN 38190.

This story will be updated.