Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur
A former slave who learned the trade of tailoring, John Jones made his mark in Chicago; he arrived in the city almost penniless and amassed a fortune to become one of black America's wealthiest entrepreneurs. His Chicago home was a station on the Underground Railroad, as he helped runaway slaves who were en route to Canada. He held political office and participated in the black convention movement. He strenuously opposed Illinois Black Laws as well as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and worked hard at the local and national level to repeal both.
Born on November 3, 1816, on a plantation in Greene County, North Carolina, John Jones was the offspring of a racially mixed couple. He was the son of John Bromfield, a German, and a free mulatto mother whose name was noted simply as "Jones." His mother feared that, despite the fact that he was considered free by virtue of her status, his father might try to enslave him. While he was still very young, she apprenticed her son to a man named Sheppard, who taught him the tailoring trade. Sheppard took young Jones with him to Tennessee and apprenticed him to Richard Clere, a tailor who lived about fifty miles from Memphis in Somerville, Fayetteville County. Since Jones knew the trade well, when his business was slow, Clere often hired him out to different tailors throughout Tennessee. While working in Memphis, in 1841 John Jones met Mary Jane Richardson, the daughter of free blacksmith Elijah Richardson. The Richardson family moved to Alton, Illinois, while Jones remained in Memphis for three years to complete the requirements of his apprenticeship and to secure himself financially.
Jones knew that during slavery, he was required to have free papers with him at all times. Thus, with permission, he returned to North Carolina, secured his free papers from the state, and on return to Tennessee he petitioned the Eleventh District Court to release him from Clere's service and custody. He was already on his way to financial security, having saved approximately $100 by 1844, when he was twenty-seven years old. Now that he was economically and legally free, he could join his future wife.
Jones moved to Alton, Illinois, and married Mary Jane Richardson. Some sources say that they met Illinois laws and yet, although they were free, in 1844 John and Mary Richardson Jones obtained a certificate of freedom, posted a $1,000 bond in Madison County, and gained the privilege of traveling and living in the state. Although little else is known about their life in Alton, the couple remained there for a while then in March 1845 relocated to Chicago, only twelve years after the city was founded. The couple sought a climate that was favorable to blacks and also wanted to become active in the abolitionist movement. They believed that opportunities for blacks were greater in Chicago than in Alton. Although Chicago was still a frontier town, it was becoming an urban city. When it became a port of entry in 1846, it attracted people from throughout the country and abroad. With only $3.50 in their pockets, the Joneses and their only child Lavinia moved to Chicago. They took a circuitous route, traveling first by stage to Ottawa, then by canal to Chicago. Throughout the journey, they feared slave catchers, who were on the lookout for fugitive slaves. They were also harassed due to their race and detained at one point, until the stagecoach driver vouched for their free status.
On March 11, nearly one week after they set out on their journey, the Jones family reached Chicago and settled in the Second Ward, bound by State Street, Clark Street, and the Chicago River. They rented a one-room apartment, or cottage, on the corner of Madison Street in what was then called Fifth Avenue but known later as Wells Street. A few blocks away, on the west side of Clark Street between Randolph and Lake, John Jones set up his small tailoring shop. That site later became the entrance to the Sherman House. Later the Joneses lived at 119 Dearborn, where John Jones also established a business that became one of Chicago's first black establishments. It was advertised in the city directory as "J. Jones, Clothes Dresser & Repairer." The highly skilled tailor soon had a thriving enterprise; he catered to many of Chicago's elite. His announcement in the city directory, cited in the Illinois Historical Journal, noted: "I take this method of informing you that I may be found at all business hours at my shop, ready and willing to do all work in my line you may think proper to favor me with, in the best possible manner. I have on hand all kinds of trimmings for repairing Gentlemen's clothes."
By 1860 Jones's business was advertised as the Clothes Cleaning and Repairing Room. He called it the city's oldest and best business enterprise. He had strengthened his financial base as well, now having accumulated between $85,000 and $100,000. The great Chicago fire of 1871 affected his wealth, yet he was left with enough money to be called one of the country's wealthiest African Americans and Chicago's undisputed black leader.
- Born free in Greene County, North Carolina on November 3
- Marries Mary Jane Richardson; files for certificate of freedom
- Relocates to Chicago with wife and child; opens tailoring shop
- Appeals to Illinois State Constitutional Convention for repeal of Black Laws
- Elected delegate to Colored National Convention
- Attends black rally at Quinn Chapel; appointed to resolutions committee; helps set up vigilance committee to monitor whites' actions toward blacks; circulates petition to repeal Illinois Black Laws
- Elected a vice president of the Colored National Convention; elected president of first Black Illinois State Convention
- Helps to found Olivet Baptist Church
- Publishes pamphlet, The Black Laws of Illinois and a Few Reasons Why They Should Be Repealed
- Loses some of his wealth in the great Chicago fire; becomes first black elected a Cook County commissioner
- Re-elected a commissioner for three-year term
- Begins successful fight to dismantle segregated schools
- Dies in Chicago on May 21
From his early days in Chicago, Jones obtained the aid of two local abolitionists: physician Charles V. Dyer, and noted attorney Lemanuel Covell Paine Freer. These men kept a steadfast friendship throughout Jones's life. Since Jones was not a learned man, he needed the assistance of one who was; thus, Freer wrote all of his letters and also taught Jones to read and write—basic skills that he needed to maintain his business and to operate in abolitionist activities when the time came. Jones learned well and later became the first black notary public in Illinois. He entered politics as well, and in 1871 he became the first black elected as Cook County commissioner. He was reelected to a three-year term in 1872. From then on, Jones played an important role in the black convention movement and in the black abolitionist movement.
After he moved to 43 Ray Street, Jones opened his home to fugitive slaves, making it the second major station on the Underground Railroad in the city. The first stop was located at Quinn Chapel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in Chicago. The ardent abolitionist hosted such luminaries as John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Mary and John Jones opposed Brown's radical views and plans, including his proposed raids in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Jones played a leadership role for three hundred blacks who met at the church on Wells Street which was later renamed Quinn Chapel. They met to protest the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Jones also joined the local Vigilance Committee and became one of its leaders.
Protests Illinois Black Laws
John Jones bitterly opposed Black Laws, calling them the reason for poverty among blacks. Obsessive fear of slave insurrections led many states to adopt Black Laws early on. Illinois Black Laws were adopted in 1819 and made it clear that blacks had no legal rights. They could neither sue nor be sued; they could testify against another slave or a free black but never against whites; they could own no property or merchandise; their oath was worthless; they could not become educated; no more than three could come together for dancing, unless a white person was present; and so on.
Illinois became notorious for restricting blacks' rights. When the state's Constitutional Convention was held in 1847, Jones was there to call for repeal. He wrote a series of articles in Chicago's Western Citizen in that year, defended black rights, and noted, among other accomplishments, the record of blacks in the Revolutionary War. He insisted that blacks had a right to equal representation and equality before the law. Still, Illinois passed Article XIV of the 1848 Illinois Constitution, which prohibited blacks from immigrating to and settling in Illinois. After that, Jones became well known as a spokesman for black rights.
Jones and other black Chicagoans met at Olivet Baptist Church on August 7, 1848, where Jones and Reverend Abraham T. Hall were elected delegates to the forthcoming Colored National Convention to be held in Cleveland. Members of the convention consisted of black freemen. The delegates were to report on the moral and intellectual development of blacks in Illinois. In September, between fifty and seventy-five men assembled for the convention, most of them self-made men who were carpenters, blacksmiths, editors, painters, dentists, farmers, grocers, or clergymen from the United States and Canada. Frederick Douglass was elected president and Jones vice president. The delegates were mainly interested in improving the status of blacks in the United States. They promoted such issues as education, temperance, and community cooperation. While Jones supported mechanical trades, business, farming, and the professions, he opposed menial labor, perhaps equating it with the experiences he had seen as a slave, and the work to which Black Laws relegated black people. The convention nearly became one of political action, as the delegates entertained the idea, but fell short of endorsing a presidential candidate.
Back in Chicago, Jones and other prominent local blacks met on September 11 to work further to repeal the state's Black Laws. They formed a correspondence committee to determine the feasibility of circulating a petition to repeal the laws and to identify all blacks in the Fourth Congressional District. But the 1849 session gave no further hope for repeal. Adding fuel to the racial unrest was the Fugitive Slave Act which Congress passed in September 1850, further preventing black emancipation. This act gave the federal government almost unlimited power to seize and return fugitive slaves, to deny the slave a trial by jury, and to enable slave owners to provide a single affidavit to claim their slaves. Those who failed to follow the law could be subjected to heavy penalties. The law produced great fear and alarm in blacks everywhere, for this was a dehumanizing act that gave whites license to engage in man-hunting schemes.
Jones and his followers were relentless in their work. On September 30, 1850, over three hundred black Chicagoans rallied at Quinn Chapel to determine their course of resistance to the new law. Jones was appointed to the resolutions committee and brought the committee's report to the mass meeting before the session ended. The committee was resolved to resist any attempt to return blacks to bondage and, at the risk of imprisonment or even death, to defend each other. There was no doubt that the Fugitive Slave Act was designed to re-enslave blacks. Then the group formed a vigilance committee that would become a black police force and would serve as long as needed. There were seven divisions in the force and six people within each division. The force patrolled the city each night and kept watch for so-called interlopers.
In December 1850, Jones circulated another petition—signed by black residents of the state—for state legislators to repeal the Black Laws. In fact, subsequent petitions were circulated throughout the 1850s but to no avail. Chicago's black leaders had a double fight—state and federal laws that restricted blacks. Jones moved his campaign outside Illinois, as he and Frederick Douglas took an antislavery tour throughout the West. By now, leaders saw a need to revive the black national convention movement. Thus, in 1853 Douglass called a meeting of free blacks, and nine states responded by sending 140 delegates. They met in Rochester, New York, on July 6, 1853, and elected Reverend James W. L. Pennington of New York as president. Among the vice presidents elected were Jones and Douglass. The group was known as the Union of Colored People of the Free States, later called the Colored National Convention. There were six councils in each state. Jones and James D. Bonner led the Illinois movement. Four standing committees were appointed as well: the Manual Labor School, Protective Unions, Business Relations, and Publications. The idea of an industrial school was not new and had been endorsed as early as the 1830s. Jones, Douglass, and other leaders, such as James McCune Smith, endorsed the idea, contending that white artisans refused to accept black apprentices and that blacks needed to learn the skilled trades necessary for social and economic independence. The institution would be called the American Industrial School, to be located in western Pennsylvania. It would admit students regardless of gender or complexion. In 1855, however, the national black convention abandoned the plan.
In October 1853, Chicago hosted the meeting of the first Black Illinois State Convention, where Jones was elected president; later he became chair of the colonizing committee. Both the Illinois and Rochester conventions were unsuccessful in bringing about equal opportunities for blacks. Even so, the black convention movement was significant. The Fugitive Slave Act prompted a black exodus to Canada, factional disputes emerged, financial support for the efforts was inadequate, but the local work had to continue. National black leaders emerged from the movement; they wrote, spoke, and petitioned for black rights and kept the issues before governing bodies. The leaders were firm believers in the race and its rights.
In 1864, the Chicago Tribune published—at his expense—Jones' pamphlet, The Black Laws of Illinois and a Few Reasons Why They Should Be Repealed. Jones continued to agitate against the Black Laws by distributing his pamphlet, making speeches, writing other articles, and lobbying in the state legislature. But it was not until 1865 that Illinois repealed the provision of its Black Laws.
Repeal of the Black Laws
The Illinois General Assembly seemed ready to repeal the Black Laws in January 1865. Outgoing governor, Richard Yates, who had resigned to become a United States senator, urged the legislature to remove the laws from the statute as quickly as possible. He was one the few whites in the legislature who had always found slavery abominable. In 1864 Yates openly stated that he favored the abolition of slavery because he supported humanity, and he knew that the U.S. Constitution gave all Americans independence. He agreed with Jones, who had said all along that both the state and federal laws were in conflict with state and federal constitutions. Bills to repeal the laws were introduced in the Illinois general assembly on January 2, 1865. Petitions poured in from throughout the state, asking for the repeal of the now infamous Black Laws. Concurrently, the U.S. Congress debated the Thirteenth Amendment. Congress acted on February 1 and Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. On February 7, 1865, after the Senate and House had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the repeal, Governor Richard J. Oglesby signed the repeal of the Illinois Black Laws. The black celebration that followed in Springfield included recognition of Jones, who ignited the fuse in a cannon that blacks fired sixty-two times—one for each member of the Senate and House. Following, Jones and the group went to the local African Methodist Episcopal Church to continue the celebration, concluding with a speech by Jones.
As Chicago's black population increased and the civil rights bill was passed in 1866, providing equal protection under the law, segregation was still alive and well in the city. Even so, blacks were now eligible to hold public office. In 1869, Governor Palmer appointed Jones a notary public, making him the state's first black to hold that office. When the state ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in March 1870, blacks could then vote in Illinois elections, and they did so. From 1872 to 1875, Jones served a short term and a full term as member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. He was one of the first blacks in the North to win such an office and the first black in Chicago elected to public office. In 1874, Jones was successful in his fight to dismantle segregated schools. A public-spirited citizen, he donated the site of the Jones School, located at Harrison Street and Plymouth Court. Named in his honor, the school educated some of Chicago's most distinguished business leaders, politicians, educators, and social and civic leaders.
Jones was gratified that, finally, the legal system in Illinois and throughout the United States recognized blacks and gave them their rights. Five years before he died, Jones referred to the progress of blacks in the Chicago Tribune, cited in the Illinois Historical Journal: "Everywhere the black man has sprung of his own free will and determination, in spite of Church and State, from the position of slavery and its consequences, to the bar, the pulpit, the lecture-room, the professorship, the degrees of M.D. and D.D."
The Joneses were active in the Chicago community. They were among the founders of Olivet Baptist Church in 1861, an important early black church that boasted a 128-volume library—the first of its kind that was open to black residents. Jones contributed significantly to black charitable institutions and various philanthropies.
After a lengthy illness, Jones died on May 21, 1879. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery. Both Jones and his wife were interred near the graves of two white abolitionists whom Jones met early in his Chicago days and who remained his lifelong friends—Alan Pinkerton and Charles Dyer. Throughout his life, Jones demonstrated a commitment to human justice and persevered in his fight to see that his race was given what was already legally his right. He was an acknowledged leader of black liberation.
The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. IV: The United States, 1847–1858. Ed. C. Peter Ripley. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Bontemps, Arna, and Jack Conroy. Anyplace But Here. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.
Branham, Charles. "John Jones." In Encyclopedia of African American Business History. Ed. Juliet E. K. Walker. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1945.
Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Gliozzo, Charles A. "John Jones." In American National Biography, Vol. 12. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Intercollegiate Wonder Book, or The Negro in Chicago, 1779–1927. Vol. I. Chicago: Published by the Washington Intercollegiate Club of Chicago, 1927.
Logan, Rayford W.. "John Jones." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Spear, Allan H. Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Gliozzo, Charles A. "John Jones: A Study of a Black Chicagoan." Illinois Historical Journal 80 (Autumn 1987): 177-88.
The papers of John Jones are in the Chicago Historical Society. The Jones collection also includes oil portraits of Jones and his wife, Mary Jane Richardson Jones, which hung in their home.
"Jones, John." Notable Black American Men, Book II. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/african-american-focus/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-john
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