Chairman—An Improbable Leader, Transcription
By Anna Jones
The original film was longer than this version on Folkstreams, which was shortened for broadcast on television. The excised passages are, however, included in the following transcription, in each case framed by brackets. The time codes given in this transcription are those of the shorter version as streamed here.
(Under the following captions, the voice of James H. Jones sings these stanzas of the hymn “Near the Cross”)
Jesus, keep me near thy Cross
There a precious fountain—
Free to all, a healing stream—
Flows from Calv'ry's mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.)
(captions, during a series of scenes from Northampton County, North Carolina)
In 1984 James Jones passed away suddenly, without warning.
It could be said that he left without a trace.
Far too little is recorded about this remarkable leader.
Yet, his works remain.
(Text card) This is his story.
EDNA DAVIS BROWN: I remember he developed a plan for integrating the schools before there was even done--before there was even talk of it.
WILLIS McLEOD: He had long had a dream, obviously. That dream evolved into a vision for Northampton County and the school system.
WILLIE GILCHRIST: We know James H. Jones. He meant just as much to this small community—to Northeastern North Carolina, as Martin Luther King was to the South and President Obama is to the world.
(title) CHAIRMAN JONES
AN IMPROBABLE LEADER
Northampton County, North Carolina
A Ten Eight Ten Production
Produced and Directed by Anna Jones
WILLIAM FRIDAY: Well, Northeastern, N.C., to start with is a glorious place. I used to love to go down to visit there. I’d go into places like Woodland and Jackson and Rich Square.
MARSHALL GRANT: Only small towns in Northampton County, almost no industry here.
DUDLEY FLOOD: Northampton is a small county on the scale of things—had a population of people who were used to each other. I don’t know how they felt about each other but they were used to each other.
CHARLES TYNER: Northampton County is a farming community—a county where people live and work and enjoy themselves together with the limited resources that they have.
BILL LONG: We did have a nice comfortable way of life in a lot of ways down here with very little change that took place for a long time.
TEXT card: The decades leading up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act are marked by racial strife. In the South, Jim Crow Laws separate the races.
TEXT card: In Northampton County inequality in daily life and education are a continuing source of discontent for men like James H. Jones.
ANNA JONES (NARRATOR): I found in going to Northampton County that people remembered. They remembered him. They remembered his contributions. They told me and were happy to tell me and so you know my hat’s off to people in Northampton County—giving, gracious people.
ANNA: It’s a wonderful place. It was like an incubator place to grow up in. They had expectations for us and we… our teachers and our community embraced us and they wanted us to do well. They expected us to do well and so we did well.
My father’s name is James H. Jones. The “H” stands for Henry. He was the oldest of eight siblings. He was born on Longview Farm January 16, 1916.
NARRATOR: Longview was a slave plantation in Occoneechee Neck where five generations of Joneses had lived, labored and raised their families. My father was a grandson of enslaved people but when he was born Longview was home to sharecropping, the new slavery.
LONG: He was a member of one of the outstanding families as far as our family was concerned that were working on this farm. There were 600 people here so I had an overview, when I say that, of quite a few to compare him with.
ANNA: (standing in front of old tenant house on Longview Farm)
I just knew that this is where they were born because we used to always go past here to go to church and my parents would point it out—this is where your Dad was born, this is where your mom and dad came to live when they got married-- and it was all a part of Longview. This is where my grandfather lived.
NARRATOR: His father’s name was Emmett Jones and his mother’s name was Alice Buffaloe Jones. Emmett Jones had been educated there on Longview, which was an unusual occurrence. They educated him and he had the responsibility for running the gin at Longview.
LONG: He was older than I was, but he was a fine Christian Gentleman. He was also educated by my aunt which at the time was illegal, but she sat out there under that Gum tree and did it anyway.
NARRATOR: My father was not educated on Longview. He was forced to drop out of school in the 7th grade to work in the fields with the rest of the family. When his mother died in 1940, he took on the responsibility for running the farm and caring for his younger brothers and sisters.
GILCHRIST: He always talked about how he had to help get his family through, his siblings through, and someone had to do the work.
FLORENCE BARNES: We all worked the farms together. If anybody would get behind on their crops James would make sure he would be there to help them. So we spent most of our time, all the Joneses, all the families out there working on the farm….we were sharecroppers. We didn’t ever see no money but we worked.
HENRY MONCURE: Well, when I first came to Northampton County, after I got a chance to look around, it looked like it was mostly all black. You know, practically all the sharecroppers were black. Most of the sharecroppers were black, they had big families. You’d look out at a field and there’s maybe fifty to sixty people out there chopping at one time.
TEXT CARD: Northampton has been a black majority county since the plantation system was established there in the 18th Century.
TYNER: It was good for them to keep us, to keep blacks, at that time, in poverty. They knew if we were educated we too could own the land, we too could be productive in Northampton County. So the whole strategy was to keep you in poverty, to keep you enslaved, and you would not then have a voice, you would not then, even then have an education. And remember, education is the key.
ANNA: He decided that sharecropping was not the life he wanted for himself nor did he want that for his children. I think he was an entrepreneur trapped inside a black sharecropper with very little education. Actually as far as I can see, he went to school when it rained or when the crops were in. And there are times, I can see in the record, where some years he went to school only ten days in an entire year. But to his credit, he didn’t stop. He kept trying.
LONG: James was a young aggressive ambitious young man that could look into the future and maybe see some things that maybe some other people couldn’t. And he just sensed that the thing to do was to break loose from the old and go for the new.
ANNA: So my father made the decision to leave. His father was upset. The Longs were upset.
LONG: We didn’t want him to leave. That was a big break in our tradition of having good people here. So when James broke ranks, it hurt everybody’s feelings.
BARNES: James was the leader of all the families and we had to do what James say do because he was the thinker for all of us. So when James left, we left too.
GRANT: That was almost a lifetime risk that he was taking, and he was risking his family in doing that, but that was the only way he had of becoming independent was to take that risk.
LONG: He just sensed this is what he had to do, so he did it.
NARRATOR: In 1942, my father struck out from Longview on his own, leaving with my mother, expecting their first child, my three aunts, an uncle and my grandfather. He was risking the wrath of his father and that of the Longs who had the power to shut him down from working on any other farm in the county.
ANNA: I suppose the thinking was if he wants to do it, let’s just let him do because he’s going to do it anyway.]
MELVIN BROADNAX (captioned): It was a very hard way of life in Northampton County. We didn’t have no leadership, didn’t own anything, didn’t have a voice to go out and speak for us. And we were kept down on the farm. A lot of families couldn’t send their children for education because they had to work on the farm. They’d come by the house, the Landlord, white, would come by the house and say, “Your children can’t go today, they have to pick cotton and work in the field,” and what not, and that was rough.
EDNA MOODY: I didn’t like the idea that a white man could drive his truck up to the school door and I had to be carted off to work in the fields while his children stayed in school.
BROADNAX: The colored were needed to work in the fields, and the whites did not have to work in the field. And James Jones from that point, he wanted to break that cycle.
ANNA: He had this idea about fair play and even handedness—doing what is right, doing what is fair, and treating the other person the way you wanted to be treated. He was a Christian and he believed in Christian principles, and he happened to marry a woman who had those same values.
BROADNAX: They say behind every good man, a successful man, his wife is beside him. Viola Jones, James Jones’ wife, was beside him, and she looked out for him all the way.
[LUCILLE HARDY: She and James were always like two twin people to my idea. They thought together and they just worked together and you never heard her disagree much on nothing he would say about trying to help somebody because that was their motive, both of them, was to help somebody. They have helped a many people.]
LONG: She was sort of like James, she was out to move. She didn’t want to stand still. She was ambitious and willing to work and struggle to have something and do something. She had a lot of ability.
Roanoke Chapel Baptist Church
SHELBY HARDY: We can’t think of how many people Cousin Vi and James have helped. If he was here in this church and if a situation was going on, he could calm it, just calm it. Just had that gift about him. And they helped people. And, God knows they fed us. And when Cousin Viola would sing, the whole church listened.
LUCILLE HARDY: We never seen him look like he was angry, and he always, before he went into anything, he said, “Let us have prayer.” He had this wisdom, he had knowledge, but then that wisdom was the one that took him through. He could see things that, you know, maybe you and I couldn’t see.
TYNER: I know he was a family man. I know he was a farmer, but yet the calling of his life was what I can do to help others. I ought to be more than taking care of my siblings; I ought to be concerned about the total community.
ANNA: My father became a deacon in 1947 at Roanoke Chapel Baptist church. [He and my mother met at Roanoke Chapel and they got married shortly after she graduated from high school in 1941.]
BROWN: But I grew up in Roanoke Chapel Baptist Church where Mr. Jones was the Superintendent of Sunday School for gosh, forty years. And I remember being in church and listening to him talk and I would say to myself “My gosh, what a smart, gentle giant of a man.” Because people listened to him, and they were influenced by him, not only when he talked about education in Northampton County, but also from a spiritual perspective.
ANNA: He was able to hone his leadership skills in the churches. There were deacons in the churches in Northampton County who organized themselves to help black people–-he was one of them.
MOODY: He was the person who would go from church to church to inform the community of what was going on.
BROADNAX: The role of the church was very important in the southland throughout because we didn’t have no place to meet. James Jones knew he couldn’t go to the Holiday Inn or any place that had a meeting place. The church was the only place where we were free to meet.
TEXT CARD: Except for the churches, every aspect of civil life was controlled by Jim Crow Laws.
PERRY MARTIN: I grew up in the political culture of Northampton County during a period of time when a white candidate did not go and seek the vote of a black individual during daylight hours [and I met James Jones at nighttime and I met other leaders in the black party at nighttime].
GROVER EDWARDS: Back in that day there were real threats out there. But it had some--there were-- real threats for his livelihood as far as folks doing something physically to you. And a lot of things that James Jones had to do was just like the Underground Railroad. You know, some of the meetings of NAACP they were done underground.
NARRATOR: In 1947, the attempted lynching of Buddy Bush, a young black man in nearby Rich Square, keeps blacks in a constant state of fear. A letter from the wife of Rich Square’s police chief to the local newspaper supports the lynch mob and further exacerbates racial tensions in Northampton County. It also leads to forming the Northampton Branch of the NAACP that year.
BROADNAX: And during that time, if a colored teacher got involved with the NAACP, she’d be fired. He or she would be fired.
I met James Jones through the NAACP, and I found out he was a man of leadership ability. A man that had vision to know where he was and where he wanted to go—what he wanted Northampton County to be like.
NARRATOR: The decade after his move from Longview are more years of struggle and sharecropping, but he buys farm equipment and rents a few acres on his own. Meanwhile our family grows to seven children.
GRANT: James Jones moved into my immediate community when I was a fairly young man. He was trying to adjust to farming on his own as a transition from working for someone else to working for himself and being able to provide a way of life for his children which he had a pretty good bunch of and to teach them how to be self-sufficient.
WAYNE JONES: It was all about work here. You had to get up in the morning when Daddy got up, you worked as long as he worked, you went to church when he went to church, and every once in a while you got to play.
NARRATOR: 1954 is a pivotal year for my father. He leaves sharecropping behind and we move to a 500-acre farm in Gaston. That same year the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling promises equal education with whites, but our new school is a huge disappointment. Brewers is a substandard 1920s facility like the one my father attended. No heating, no plumbing, and no resources to speak of. He appeals to the school superintendent in Jackson to keep us at the Garysburg School.
ANNA : But, Daddy was turned down flat and he had no recourse because there is no black voice on the school board, there’s no black person in administration, there is no sympathetic white. The superintendent could make that call, and the Superintendent said, “No.”
MARTIN: The black people were cheated. We did not make the facilities equal. And if we had complied with the equality part of the law, you would never have heard of Brown vs. Board of Education, but we refused to follow it.
NARRATOR: After the Supreme Court mandates the integration of public schools in Brown vs. Board blacks see hope for a better future, whites gear up to resist any change whatsoever. In Northampton County battle lines are drawn.
FRIDAY: The law had been declared. The question is where is the progressive leadership which will overtime implement the law and make it the reality that the Supreme Court meant for it to be.
FLOOD: It was the opening of society for African Americans and other minorities. It didn’t just open schools, it opened society.
MARTIN: The initial impact was malice, hatred, ill will. Certainly that was not intended by the Supreme Court, but it did, it made things worse for a substantial period of time.
FRIDAY: What you were seeing was a very dramatic turnaround in the life of the South, that’s what you were seeing. And, the real test you see, of the American way of life at that moment, was whether or not we were really law-abiding people.
MARTIN: People did not follow the law and Northampton County, oddly enough, is the only county in the United States that actually tried a case in Federal Court refusing to follow Brown vs. the Board of Education.
TEXT CARDS: Northampton County challenges Brown vs. Board of Education and loses.
MARTIN: As a result of losing that case, the presiding judge admonished me to go to every public school in Northampton County and explain the law. And when I went to these schools, Mr. Jones would go along with me because I was having a hard time. People in the County were disliking me for accepting the case, and in effect losing the case, and going into a position of doing things for Northampton County that they did not want.
BROADNAX: This was prior to integration. We were known at the time, you know, whites and the colored. And so at the time that he came on the scene. He came up through the PTA. He had children of his own and wanted to make sure that they got an education.
NARRATOR: In 1957, Northampton County opens Squire Elementary, a new school for black children. Although it’s a new facility, it is still inadequate. There is no library, no cafeteria, not enough classrooms. The parents and teachers mobilize. They use their own money to provide resources that the white schools are already receiving for free. The Parent Teacher Association becomes the major force for getting things done!
Anna: At the first PTA meeting, they elected James Jones as the PTA President. Being the PTA President at Squire Elementary School meant that he had a very large constituency of black people. Throughout the minutes of the meetings you could see him pushing people to register to vote, pushing people to speak up—when you see the school board representatives, talk to them about what we need. He himself used that PTA presidency as a forum for, I’ll call it, planting seeds of activism.
GRANT: He just involved himself in everything school-wise, church-wise and community-wise, like farm programs. We had farm meetings in the wintertime and he, like most progressive farmers, attended them…
TEXT CARDS: In 1958 he expands his operation and buys his own farm.
GILCHRIST: Mr. Jones was a prominent farmer—Mr. Jones, a prominent land owner. Mr. Jones was the Black person in the community that PEOPLE looked up to because of his way of being progressive.
MONCURE: Of course, he was independently farming for himself, which was being in business for himself—where most everybody else was still sharecropping. He had elevated out to having to buy his own land and doing his own farming. By being a landowner, he participated in the farm meetings—and he would get in on those. So, he got associated with these people and these people found he was a good man.
GRANT: Agricultural leadership was important. It was the agricultural leadership that operated the County. Most all the county commissioners were farmers, and things of that nature.
BROWN: Since we grew up in an agrarian kind of community there were a lot of farmers. I think he wanted more for our youth in terms of getting the skills and knowledge and training that they needed to do more with their lives.
ANNA: As children, Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t really mean much to us, but the adults were really, really focused in on it. And as I look back now, I know my father was focused in on it because the NAACP was focused in on it.
NARRATOR: The NAACP is seen as the enemy of the State of North Carolina because of the role they played in getting the separate but equal law declared unconstitutional. In Northampton County influence of the NAACP begins to grow.
ANNA: Eventually that group spawned a group called The Ten, which was a secret group of black men organized for that same purpose—to improve the plight of black people in Northampton County.
BROADNAX: They grew out of the NAACP. But at the time then and now, the NAACP is not a political group. It would be illegal for them to get one. So they formed The Ten. That’s how they got formed.
ANNA: They would meet at midnight so that They wouldn’t be detected by whites who meant them harm and did not want to see this kind of thing happen.
BROADNAX: James Jones was a midnight rider. He was like Paul Revere and all them boys.
TYNER: The main meeting place was Faison’s funeral home. That was a facility that was large enough, and likewise that was a facility that you didn’t have a lot of people just coming to check out because it was a funeral home.
ANNA: My father had an idea about how to improve things for black people. Education for one thing. Voting was another.
TYNER: You gotta know Northampton County back in those days. The reason why we did not have a black on the board of education or any other black official was because we were not even allowed to vote.
MARTIN: They were having a great many difficult problems in the voting process and people being denied the right to vote unless they could read and interpret the Constitution.
[BROADNAX: It was very hard for a colored to get on the book to vote. That’s why the Louise Lassiter case was very important.]
NARRATOR: In 1957, Mrs. Louise Lassiter mispronounces a word in the Constitution and is denied the right to register to vote. The Ten support her in challenging NC’s literacy tests at the Northampton County Board of Elections.
ANNA: Well this case went through the Northampton County Superior Court, It went through the State Courts and all the way to the Supreme Court and was heard, I believe, in 1959.
NARRATOR: The Lassiter case focuses national attention on abuses by white registrars and prompts North Carolina to amend its laws. In 1960, Mrs. Lassiter registers to vote. Her success is a watershed moment for Blacks in Northampton to assert themselves in the political process.
RUFUS EDMISTEN: Before the ‘60s, sometimes a lot of the whites tried to ignore that there was a black community. I tell you what …what democratized it was the right to vote. That brought out the notion that our black friends are mighty important to us. I came out of those tumultuous times, hearings in congress, demonstrations, and here I was coming out of that time when the right to vote right to vote had changed everything.
(Jingle from Terry Sanford radio campaign ad regarding education
So for your next governor
Vote for Terry Sanford)
TEXT CARDS In the 1960 Governor’s race progressive candidate Terry Sanford defeats avowed segregationist, I. Beverly Lake.
TEXT CARD: Black voters overwhelmingly support Sanford.
AUDIO: “This is Terry Sanford. The better educated a person is the more money he makes. Quality education is North Carolina’s best investment.”
FRIDAY: Terry Sanford was more moderate…. he was the man that gave the forward thrust and I think everything he tried to do was to move the state forward. If you don’t educate the children, you don’t move.
NARRATOR: In spite of some movement in voting rights, the schools are still unequal and segregated. In 1963, black students make up 75% of the student population. There are three high schools for blacks and six for whites.
KUBE JONES-NEILL: But Daddy believed that it was never going to be right. That the way we paid taxes as black people, we would never get the full benefit the way white people paid taxes and that the only way to do that was to continue to pursue integration and that the schools were the way to do it.
PERRY MARTIN: We could have gotten by the way we were if we had made it equal because the black people were not so concerned about this separation thing, but they insist on being equal.
FLOOD: What North Carolina did was adopt the procedure of Freedom of Choice. Freedom of Choice at least was a runway before the takeoff, and I suspect all of us who worked in that arena knew it was a runway—we didn’t see it as the solution.
TEXT CARD: PTA President James Jones leads the Freedom of Choice effort by enrolling his children in all-white Gaston High.
WAYNE: Well, Gaston, N.C., in general was a bastion of discrimination. The hatred, the just meanness in the spirit of the people would cause you grave concern. I was going to the ninth grade. Freedom of choice was good in that we could now experience the same level of resources, the same facilities that white kids could.
JONES-NEILL: My brother Wayne had been there before—a couple of years before—so he really broke the ice and he took the brunt of the initial impact of black students walking the hallways of that school.
As for wanting to go there—no, I cried. Just could not understand why it had to be me. And Daddy’s answer was, “How can I ask other people to send their children if my own aren’t going?”
WAYNE: I believe that I was a target because of my dad. It was directed to me from some white students who said, “Your dad is the one that’s stirring up all the trouble in this county. That’s the reason why we’re having to go through this anyway.”
One indication I had that I was the target was a note. It was a very threatening note, “N-word, you will die before you get home.”
I didn’t believe that my father would stand still for what I was experiencing, but something in the back of my mind kept saying that if he gets involved it’s going to be a distraction to him and this movement to the degree that it could fail because of me.
[JONES-NEILL: We started out being offended by the school mascot—they were called the Gaston Rebels. Working with Daddy and other members of the community, we set up a strategy for how to deal with that and we took the best ideas from everybody, and Daddy would articulate the final strategy. “So, this is what you’re going to do.”
TEXT CARD: As a result of open dialogue among the students, the name is changed to the Gaston Lakers.]
WAYNE: I believe I did my part--To go into that environment and to stake out a claim to our right—our meaning “black people”—our right to the same education that everyone else had.
PERRY MARTIN: What they did was good for the times in regard to freedom of choice. It satisfied the demands of the people. But Freedom of Choice is not enough. Freedom of Choice is not what the law said.
TEXT CARD: Federal Judge Larkins orders NHC schools to submit a plan to fully integrate.
TEXT CARD: The school board does not draft a plan. Black leaders are not consulted.
ANNA: My father, Mr. Jack Faison, and a man by the name of Clifton Manley decide that they’re going to the School Board. So they go to the school board and demand to be heard. And they demand to be an advisory committee—advising, sitting at the table when the planning is being done. Now, I would imagine that the school board was fairly taken aback that these three black men have come forward and say, “We want to sit at this table.”
BROWN: Mr. Jones had gotten together with a couple key other people and actually sat down and literally wrote out this plan even before any discussions had taken place. It blows my mind now when I think about that taking place during that era.
ANNA: White parents had said if their children had to go to school with black children that they would take them out the public schools. So, school boards were trying to comply with the white parents’ wishes, but they now also had to comply with the law, so everybody’s in a very difficult position here.
FRIDAY: Given those stresses and given those tensions, invariably there rises up in that kind of situation some individual, some groups of people who say, “We’ve got to move forward. And this is happening in your region, in Northampton, and your father was a man who helped set that.”
TYNER: I was then a student at then the all-black school, Willis Hare High School. We were talking about how we were going to find ourselves in the integrated schools. Mr. Jones stood tall in making sure there was conversation, I mean conversation between the blacks and the whites. Conversations that no one wanted to have about race. I heard him say on many occasions, “Let’s deal with it from both sides. “Let’s be fair.” That was his word—“Let’s be fair about all that we do.”
TEXT CARD: After a decade as PTA president of Squire School and against the odds, James Jones runs for the Board of Education.
BROWN: He would always talk about how important education was and talk about his wanting to be a voice. A voice for not only African Americans but for everyone in terms of making sure that we really get a quality education; and that, moreover, that black folks really are heard in the County.
TYNER: We knew that we needed representation, but we needed someone who would not be afraid. I come today to tell you that Mr. Jones was not afraid.
MORRIS SHEARIN: The question was asked, “Well, why do you people want to be on the Board of Education?” and Mr. Jones, Mr. James H. Jones, said, in response to the question raised, “Well, when you continue to go behind doors to make decisions that affect our lives, I like know what’s going on, what’s being said behind those doors.”
BROADNAX: He ran, James Jones ran for the Board of Education two times and failed. After he failed the second time they found out it was going to be hard. But there was a young lawyer that wanted to run for the Senate. Perry Martin was the name. There was a meeting called at L. H. Moseley’s home.
PATSY MOSELEY TANN: I remember a lot of people being here. I remember a lot of the political meetings, but the one thing about that meeting is there was just one white man there.
ANNA: My father and The Ten convene a dinner meeting at one of the principals’ homes. At the meeting there’s Perry Martin and the Ten. And he’s looking for black support.
BROADNAX: When Perry Martin asked the group to vote for him, he promised the group that, “If you appoint me and get me elected, when I get to Raleigh, I’ll look out for ya’ll.” That’s the term he used, “I’ll look out for ya’ll.”
MARTIN: So I put in a bill changing the membership of the Board of Education in Northampton County from five members to seven, and it also became my responsibility to appoint those two members, at least to the interim term, and they would have to face election.
TYNER: And his appointment was for Mr. Jones to be on the Board of Education. That was a bright day, a good day for Northampton County. At last! at last! at last! we have representation on the Board of Education, and Mr. Jones went to the Board of Education representing the minority in voting, but the majority in population.
LONG: James had the unique ability, in my opinion, to not only get something done with the blacks, but he could also deal with the whites. And that’s exactly who this county needed at that time. That was a very difficult time, and they needed a man that was upright and had character and could stand for what he thought was right, and people had faith in him.
MARTIN: It was obvious from the beginning that, I, for one time did something right when I appointed Mr. Jones to the Board.
JONES-NEILL: I remember the appointment, and there was a bit of angst around that. Because, if they appoint you, as he would say, “If they give you something they can take it back.” By the time that first term was over and he ran for office and he was being elected, we knew a lot more about what he needed to do to get elected.
ANNA: Now he’s able to work from the inside, as opposed to banging on the door from the outside. He wanted to be able to go behind those doors and effect some change back there.
Text Card: James Jones will be re-elected five successive terms from 1971 to 1980
[NARRATOR: With only his faith, quiet courage and single-minded determination, James Jones walks a tight rope between two worlds, one black, one white.]
TYNER: I really don’t understand why Mr. Jones was involved in this kind of warfare because Mr. Jones was a farmer—didn’t have a lot of education himself. But I tell you what he did have. He had wisdom. He knew how to bring people together.
McLEOD: He knew that education was the key to success for his county and for his people, and he and only he really knew how to work the terrain such that it would become a reality at a point in time.
FLOOD: When I met him, he was one of the few blacks who was serving on the Board of Education in any eastern North Carolina County. He was going to be looking for what is right, not who is right. And James Jones was respected by people outside of the county for having that facility.
GRANT: And when there was a problem, we talked with each other about it because we helped each other. Me being a conservative Republican and him a liberal Democrat had nothing to do with it. The needs were what we needed to do to make our community a better place to live.
MARTIN: He had the ability to hear what they were saying without being irritated, and then, when the furor of the masses was over, this one calm voice would come back and say, ”Well, it must be done this way. We must send the children, from a reasonableness standpoint, to the same school regardless of their race.”
EDWARDS: [I think you have to have that kind of wisdom, you got to have that kind of caring and you got to learn how to take a position.] Your Daddy would, in spite of the odds, would take a position. You know if he had to take a position he did so, if it meant standing out there by himself. Too many of us can’t take a position.
TYNER: I know they had many midnight meetings discussing elements of our schools, especially with the integration: Who would be the principals, who would be the teachers and so forth. Mr. Jones stood his ground, and each time, I want you to know, he came out a winner.
MARTIN: Mr. Jones, genetically, for some reason unbeknown to me and maybe to you as his daughter, he had the calmness and quietness about him that caused people to reason that were not reasonable.
ANNA: He would ask the question, “Is this for the children, or is it for us? How will this affect all of the children?” and force people to think differently and to think broader and to have more vision about the decisions that they made.
TYNER: He was dealing with whites who did not want a black to be represented. He was dealing with the problem of segregated schools. He met opposition because the whites did not want the black schools to be as equal to the white schools.
GILCHRIST: He worked on that board. He made sure that we got more than just the old books with signatures in them. He made sure that we got some of the new books. He made sure that we got equal or close to equal funding for our programs. He made sure of that.
TYNER: Just one vote he had meant that he had to be persuasive enough, skillful enough that he could persuade them—I don’t know how he did it—to do the kind of things that were right and needed to get done.
BROWN: Even though I think that in some ways it was separate, still separate somewhat and sometimes still unequal, it was nowhere as unequal as it was before he was involved in really pushing for education, quality education, and really having a vision to go beyond what was already before us.
TYNER: Schoolmasters met once a month. That’s when all the principals of the schools, we had all the elected officials—black. All of us would meet, and we would share information, give Mr. Jones information that he needed so he could make the right decision. And I know they imagined, the board members sometime would imagine “How in the world did Mr. Jones get that information?”
GILCHRIST: And the Schoolmasters, Mr. Jones would always share with us, even as Black administrators, “This is what you need to be doing. This is what’s coming through the pipe. These are things you’re going to be evaluated on. These are the things you’re going to be held accountable for. Fellas, get it done.”
BROADNAX: James Jones worked with the teachers. Because the white were paid a certain amount of money and the colored teachers were paid…he wanted it to be equal.
TYNER: But likewise, Mr. Jones was responsible for making sure that blacks were represented in the central office. As I can remember, Mrs. Elizabeth Gordon, Mrs. Eudora Mullins, the first blacks to ever work in Northampton County’s Central Office were there because Mr. Jones said to the Board of Education, “Not only do we need representation on the Board of Education with me, but we need representation in the superintendent’s office, in our central administration.”
TEXT CARD: In the election of 1980, the school board shifts from majority white to majority black.
TEXT CARD: James H. Jones becomes the first black county school board chairman in North Carolina.
MARTIN: Mr. Jones eventually became Chairman of the Northampton County Board of Education. He stepped up in the scale of leadership on the board and in the County.
ANNA: He was elected by his peers to be the chairman of the board, and he called me on the phone. He says, “Ruth, they want me to be the chairman of the Board.” And I said, “Oh, that’s great Dad!” He said, “But I don’t have an education.” I said, “Did they ask you for a résumé?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, you’ve been on that Board. They know what you bring to the table. They wouldn’t have asked you to be their leader if they didn’t know this.” He said, “But my handwriting—I have to sign teacher’s checks.” I said, “Daddy, those teachers, trust me; will be happy to get those checks. It won’t matter.” I said, “It’s an honor; do it.”
FLOOD: Mr. Jones, having become the first black chairman of a board was historic not just for northeastern North Carolina. It was important for all of North Carolina because it was an opportunity for North Carolina to see, it wasn’t anathema to have an African American in the leading role. And his having brought in Dr. McLeod, that too demonstrated that there are African Americans who can and should be holding leadership positions.
EDWARDS: [The day had come, we had the votes the time had moved, and we had progressed that far.] It wasn’t like he had to be Black, but Mac proved to be a good candidate. Mr. Jones told him right up front that it was probably going to be an honor for him to come to Northampton County and that if he did a good job and everything that he could stay here a while. But he expected him to do a good job and expected things to shine when he left.
BROADNAX: James Jones brought him here because he did a lot of work to find one. That’s the same way Branch Rickey was when he brought Jackie Robinson in in 1947. He wanted to make sure he brought in the right man.
SHEARIN: I believe that everybody received Dr. McLeod well, and your dad helped to soften that decision.
ANNA: Under his leadership and my father’s Chairmanship of the Board, they were able to move forward. You had a coalition of blacks and whites marching together down this path toward progress for their children.
[McLEOD: He was at the base of that coalition and because of our way of thinking, the way I had been brought up and then his teaching and his example, he and I were able to work with and through others to make that coalition stronger.]
TEXT CARD: Chairman Jones and Superintendent McLeod take on the challenge of ensuring that all Northampton County schools meet the standards set by the state.
McLEOD: The school system had never ever been accredited, and I had the job of going out and explaining to the community. And when you start talking about the best and how to achieve the best, then you get attention and you get help and support.
JOHN PARKER: When Mr. Jones was chair of the Board and Dr. McLeod and Mrs. Gay were really pushing for state accreditation, I was experiencing that as a teacher and then a Central Office administrator. At that time if you met accreditation levels for number of library books in the library, the condition of the facilities, the number of highly qualified teachers…So you had to put resources there to get there. And so that happened in that period of time.
McLEOD: Getting the schools accredited gave me some ammunition I needed to go to the General Assembly and request state dollars, state bond dollars. But one of happiest days in my career was the day that we passed that bond referendum, $7 Million dollars. It was a lot of money for us. I mean, we built a new school. We refurbished several schools, and the place didn’t look the same, you know.
TEXT CARD: 1984
For the first time in Northampton County’s history, every school in the system is up to standard. It is a proud moment for Chairman Jones, Superintendent McLeod, and citizens of Northampton County.
ANNA: I saw in the minutes that he would take the lead on school-bond referendums. So eventually they were able to make a lot of inroads into desegregating these schools. They had to build some new facilities, and they had a lot of back and forth about what really constitutes integration, and that sort of thing in an area where you have that sort of imbalance of populations racially.
JONES-NEILL: His world became wider and broader. He began to travel around the State and even out of the State, meeting people from different walks of life. He spent a lot of time in Raleigh.
FLOOD: I always saw Mr. Jones in settings like the state conferences, the state conventions. And the way he was perceived by me and I suspect by others was in the same manner: a calm, deliberative person who made really good common sense. And then when you talked one on one with him, you got a good feeling about how he cared about his county, how he cared about the people therein, how he respected them, how he advocated for them in a way that others would come to respect them. The more people were able to see the results of his work, then the more his influence had its impact. And I would suspect there are people today living under his influence that don’t even know where it came from. That’s the kind of leader that he was.
GILCHRIST: Mr. Jones did not have an agenda for black folk. Mr. Jones had an agenda for folk—for people, and that’s probably irritated some younger individuals. They thought it was time for someone else to lead.
McLEOD: That was James Jones Achilles heel. They became very, very jealous of his success. They also felt he had had enough spotlight. James Jones never sought the spotlight. The spotlight found him. Spotlight found him through the issues for which he fought and the difficult times, the times that he had to be a trailblazer. See, the man was a trailblazer. He was a Daniel Boone. He cut through the briars and brambles of racism in Northampton County and brought that county to what we call an opening where they could begin to see what was beyond, what was beyond the forest.
NARRATOR: My father’s journey took him from sharecropping to Chairman of the Board of Education, but through it all, he never stopped working the land. From the time he was a boy ‘til the day he died he was in those fields.
BROADNAX: He worked so hard for education for everybody, and he got killed trying to help one of his own.
TYNER: We knew that the leader of integration for change in Northampton County had gone and left us. We were sad. It was a sad day in Northampton County. We all mourned his loss. And, we even asked the question, “Lord, why Mr. Jones, why?” Because he was instrumental in taking us from the late 60’s to the 80’s. He was instrumental in keeping peace and harmony in our county and bringing us to where we are today.
BROWN: So we all need to recognize and appreciate and remember what took place here. Not only Northampton County but I think the whole State of North Carolina should know about James Jones.
FLOOD: We were trying to bring about a greater society, that America would be what it said it was and to a great extent, he made a contribution in doing that.
TEXT CARD: October 18, 2014. Chairman James H. Jones is inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.
(Applause) SPEAKER: James Henry Jones was a farmer in rural North Carolina who became a leader during the desegregation of North Carolina Public Schools. He transformed the educational landscape in Northampton County, North Carolina’s first Black School Board Chairman….congratulations.
(Presentation of the award and Anna reading the plaque on the wall)
NARRATOR: My father fulfilled his dreams of education for his eight children and he realized the vision of quality education for all of Northampton County’s children. In North Carolina, people remember.
(Rolling over unaccompanied singing by Mrs. Suzie James:
Look where he brought me from
Look where he brought me from
He brought me out of darkness
Now I’m a-walking in the light
Look where he brought me from)
A Film by Anna Jones
Director of Photography
John Santa, Drew Grimes, York Phelps
Phillip Benz, Michael Davie, Steve Dennis. Drew Grimes, Garland McLaurin, Stewart Nelsen, Jack Pless
Carlton Mack, Judy Van Wyk, Joyce Ellis
Mrs. Florence Barnes (died in 2017)
Mayor Melvin Broadnax (died in 2012)
Mrs. Edna Davis Brown
Mrs. Jane Long Brown
Mr. Steve Burgwyn
Mr. Waverly Davis
Mr. Grover Edwards
Attorney Rufus Edmisten
Dr. William Friday (died in 2012)
Dr. Dudley Flood
Dr. Willie Gilchrist
Mr. Marshall Grant
Mrs. Lucille Hardy
Ms. Shelby Hardy
Mr. Wayne Jones
Mr. W. G. “Bill” Long (died in 2020)
Mrs. Mildred Long
Ms. Nell Martin
Judge Perry W. Martin (died in 2020)
Dr. Willis B. McLeod
Mr. Henry Moncure
Ms. Edna Moody
Ms. Kube Sherron Jones Neill
Dr. John Parker
Rev. Morris Shearin
Mrs. Patsy Moseley Tann
Rev. Charles Tyner
Carlton T. Mack
Plesent W. Goode, IV
Mary Duke Biddle Foundation
Northampton County NAACP
Northampton County Public Schools
Northampton County News
Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald
Joyner Library Archives, ECU, Greenville
National Archives and Records Administration
Elaine Burgwyn, “Are You from Dixie”
North Carolina State Archives, “Tar Heel Family”
Duke University Rubenstein Library
Wilson Library Archives, UNC Chapel Hill
Northampton County Museum
Northampton County Library
NCCU Shepherd Library Archives
Library of Congress
The Prelinger Archives
W. Lee Grant
Alex Rivera Estate
Jerry Hedspeth Photographer
Center for Documentary Studies
Faison’s Funeral Home
Flowers at Woodcroft
The People’s Channel
NC Center for Automotive Research
Hardee’s of Gaston
Negril Tree House
Common Ground Yoga
Northampton County Manager
Town of Gaston
“Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”
arranged and performed by Richard Betts
“Look Where He Brought Me From
sung by Mrs. Suzie James
A presentation of the Southern Documentary Fund
© Ten Eight Ten Productions, LLC, 2020. All Rights Reserved.